A story of adultery, betrayal, age discrimination, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, press intrusion, scandal, robbery… and a rescue at sea. Hardly the kind of subjects you would necessarily associate with Victorian music hall, and yet all that and more can be found in Marie Lloyd Stole My Life, a true tale of scandal, stardom and song in 19th century Islington, playing at London’s Rosemary Branch Theatre on 6 October 2022.
Charlotte Walker stars in J.J. Leppink’s Marie Lloyd Stole My Life, a one woman show about the unglamorous side of showbusiness in Victorian London through the subversive lens of music hall. Think Ripper Street meets EastEnders – with songs. Not exactly the Good Old Days.
Merry Nelly Power was a real life, trailblazing performer of the 19th century, a male impersonator who struck an early blow for women’s rights by owning her own properties and headlining at all the major theatres. Until her fame – and her most famous song – were usurped by the young Marie Lloyd.
In the centenary year of Marie Lloyd’s death Blue Fire Theatre Company tells the story of how the ‘Queen of the Music Hall’ came to fame at poor Nelly’s expense. And tells it at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, located literally on the corner of the street where Nelly lived and a stone’s throw from Marie Lloyd’s home. These two theatre ghosts may have even worked there when it was a music hall!
So how did the idea for Marie Lloyd Stole My Life come about and how has the play been developed into the successful London and touring show it is today? My Theatre Mates catches up with performer Charlotte Walker to find out.
The background to how you came across the story of Nelly Power is really interesting, can you describe what happened?
I trained as a tour guide in Clerkenwell and Islington in London and my first assessed assignment was to present for 10 minutes on a subject of my choice (as long as it was about Islington). I was short on time for preparation – I’m always juggling too many balls – so thought I’d speak about Marie Lloyd who grew up in Islington, so that if I struggled for material I could use up the last two minutes of the presentation by singing. Which I did – I don’t think the University of Westminster has ever had ‘Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way’ ringing around its hallowed corridors before. But – along the way I discovered that Ms Lloyd wasn’t the original singer of ‘The Boy in the Gallery’, which is a song always associated with her. My interest was piqued.
What inspired you to start researching?
I love a mystery and once I knew who had been the original singer I wanted to find out more about her and what the story behind the song might have been. It’s a lovely song. There’s not much in the public domain about Nelly but what is there is fascinating.
When did you begin to realise that the story would work so well as a one-woman drama?
It was an accident! I was producing a show that featured another actor to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and at one point it looked as though he’d have to miss a couple of performances; I couldn’t have empty slots so decided I’d have to do a show myself. The Nelly story was fresh in my mind and as I have a strong music hall background it made sense to put it all together and see what happened.
Did you almost feel a responsibility to Nelly, in that Marie Lloyd became so famous and Nelly didn’t receive the recognition she deserved?
I think I did. The way we tell the story is a great injustice and back in the day it was a huge deal for someone to sing a song that “belonged” to someone else. It could – and often did – mean a significant loss of income for the original singer. But there is an anecdotal story that when Nelly was told of the “theft” she laughed it off and said “let her have it”.
We’ll never know what really happened, but Nelly was certainly a force to be reckoned with. She was such a big star that theatres advertised shows “at no extra expense” when she was on the bill. At the age of only 20 she stood up in court and testified against her husband (he was a real piece of work, let me tell you) in her divorce case, and at a time when votes for women wasn’t even on the agenda properly she owned two houses and had financial independence. And despite all that she died young and in poverty; there wasn’t even enough money to pay for her funeral. It just didn’t seem a fair ending or fair that that she’d just disappeared from public consciousness.
What led you to J.J. Leppink to write the show?
I love JJ’s writing. And I wanted to avoid the traditional chronological biography path that it would be so easy to go down. I wanted the show to be about much more than just one person and for Nelly to be the voice of the women of the music hall who survived – and thrived – in a man’s world. I knew we were in safe hands with JJ who writes from a feminist perspective and has a wicked sense of humour. Let’s not forget Nelly was a comedienne, so despite the overarching tragedy of her story we have a lot of laughs along the way.
JJ is also young. It was really important to me that the show not be “old fashioned”. I want to bring Nelly – and music hall – to a new audience and the best way to do that is to be relatable. I also love the way that JJ first noticed that everything Nelly had done Marie did bigger and better – more husbands, higher earnings, and even twice as many people at her funeral.
There’s a lot of issues in the show that make it very relevant to contemporary audiences, can you tell us more about this gritty side to music hall?
Well it certainly wasn’t the Good Old Days. There were literally hundreds of music halls just in London – including over 30 in the borough of Islington, so the “turns” would travel between them, sometimes working in different shows during one night, changing in taxis on the way and hoping they would get a warm reception from an often drunk and rowdy audience.
A bad audience reception could mean no further employment – and physical injury from whatever was being thrown at you. Employment rights were zero and although the biggest stars earned a fortune most acts were poorly paid. Even those big stars (including both Marie Lloyd and Nelly) often ended their lives in poverty and suffered ill health. Sex discrimination, age discrimination and exploitation of every kind, they were all there in abundance.
You have commented on how music hall is regarded as old fashioned, but I have a feeling you would like to blow that theory out of the water?
I certainly would. The thing I’ve learned is that nothing much changes – only the names, really. Music hall was subversive and political. It’s where burlesque comes from and where drag kings were invented – Nelly Power was one of the first and the most successful of her era. Marie Lloyd shocked with her saucy songs and many of the songs of the time had hidden meanings relating to being sexual subversive. Music hall was the place that the working classes went to see their “betters” from the upper classes being mocked on stage. It was the Victorian equivalent of a mash up of Britain’s Got Talent, RuPaul’s Drag Race and Mock the Week.
What has been the reaction to the show during its previous Edinburgh run and tour etc?
We’ve been fortunate to have some quite diverse audiences and they’ve all given great feedback. We’ve had some truly lovely audience reviews, as well as brilliant professional ones. And several people have seen the show more than once, which is really flattering. Some of the nicest feedback has been from audience members who don’t know anything about music hall and come at the show fresh.
What would you like audiences to take away from Marie Lloyd Stole My Life?
That it’s not always the people who are at the forefront of history/the media or the ones who shout the loudest that we need to take the most notice of; that women have come along way in terms of equality but there’s still a way to go. And the words to all the songs – there’s plenty of opportunity to join in.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just that you don’t need to know about music hall to enjoy this show. It’s a study in the celebrity culture of an era. If you picked Nelly up, along with her childhood stardom, jewellery collection and scandalous love life and marriage and put her in the 20th century you’d have Elizabeth Taylor!
Marie Lloyd Stole My Life plays at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, 2 Shepperton Rd, London N1 3DT on Thursday 6 October 2022. Time: 7.30pm. Tickets: £14 (£12 concessions). Group offer available. Running time: 75 minutes (no interval)