Museum of Comedy, London
Ellen Maria Lingham (1854-1887), better known as Nelly Power. Matilda Alice Victoria Wood (1870-1922), better known as Marie Lloyd. Both ladies of the professional music hall, whose lives briefly converge in Lottie Walker’s one-woman show, which was recently performed at the Museum of Comedy as part of the Camden Fringe.
Although Power’s fame has been largely lost to time – recordings were not possible during her peak, and photographs can only hint at what her act might have been like – most music hall devotees are aware of Lloyd and her defining numbers ‘The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery’ and ‘My Old Man (Said Follow The Van)’ through the scratchy gramophone records made in around 1908. As we discover, the story of the former song is not as clear-cut as you may imagine.
Power first graced the stage at the age of eight, performing in the style of George “Champagne Charlie” Leybourne (1842-1884), who is referenced here as a friend and mentor. As Nelly grew up and assumed ‘breeches” and principal boy parts, she was even billed once over the (now) better-known Vesta Tilley (born Matilda Alice Powles, 1864-1952; becoming Lady de Frece from marriage in 1919).
Who was Nelly Power? Walker tells all in this show: from the daring rescue of a bather in distress; to the unfortunate marriage to Roland Israel Barnett, a thief and a drunk; and of course, that fleeting friendship with Matilda Wood, the chorus dancer in one of her shows. Power was as powerful as her name suggests in her day; a wealthy property owner and marquee name. She has the scrapbooks to prove it, and the humour to tell it.
Punctuated by beloved songs of the era (‘Burlington Bertie’, ‘Champagne Charlie’, ‘The Flying Trapeze’, ‘My Old Man’, ‘The Boy I Love’…) there is plenty of time in Marie Lloyd Stole My Life to join in as if you were one of those ‘three thousand pairs of eyes’ at the heart of music hall. The songs, and the personalities who popularised them, are still very recognisable and transcend the years since they were first delivered from the stage.
In Power’s world, men are useful, but disappointments. Her manager, Mr Ware, doublecrosses her. A dalliance with a man of quality, Freddie Hobson, ends when he marries within his station. Even young men on the street, steering their wives away from campaigners for women’s suffrage, are noted in wry asides.
This is a beautifully written show, full of pathos and conjuring up the mores and expectations of the time – notably, both Power and Lloyd died prematurely, which highlights the hard life of those on the boards. Accompanied by her pianist, Walker renders the songs very well, and turns on the charm of an old pro when addressing us as Nelly with a chirpy ‘now then’ and sending us off with a heartfelt ‘cheerio’.
Fringe rating: *****
Marie Lloyd Stole My Life played the Water Rats and the Museum of Comedy during its 2021 run at the Camden Fringe. For more about Nelly Power, go to Into the Limelight’s article here, which includes several images from across her career.
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