Your chance to catch the slaves to entertainment

Review by Paul Nelson

THERE is surely no more professional and accessible place to see Music Hall in the entire world than the already world-famous Players' Theatre. Thursday October 18 was the 65th anniversary of the founding of this enterprising theatre, originally designed to give a stage to actors who were in between jobs, and a home for their aficionados to see them working. Nothing has changed.

You can still see stars, and I mean stars, who are in between jobs. It is their preference to appear on the small club stage and show their audience that they are not just slaves to the West End, but also slaves to entertainment. Affectionately referred to as 'the pink tunnel' the theatre has been the spot where agents, casting directors and managements have picked hitherto unknown actors, who have gone on to great things, even stardom, in West End productions. Most of these return to Players unheralded for what can be described as sentimental reasons. Thus, the professionalism of any evening is guaranteed.

You can see artists like Sophie-Louise Dann, hardly ever out of Shaftesbury Avenue and its environs, and Jan Hunt, an equally enormous favourite with both Players' audiences and those television viewers and theatregoers who perhaps are unaware that she regularly appears in an arch just off The Strand. That is where Players Theatre lives. It is still Under the Arches beneath Charing Cross Station in Villiers Street, albeit a different arch to fifty years ago, and it is still providing colossal entertainment.

The 65th anniversary was graced, not only by these two excellent performers, who both manage to give the right amount of authenticity to their acts (I should point out that the theatrical bills at the Players aim at being genuine 1899 Songs and Variety), but also with a sprinkling of talented newcomers, and some truly golden oldies, favourites of the theatre's audiences. The theatre provides a welcome that is without parallel in the whole of London.

Several members of the audience last Thursday were American members, and they, along with their cherished memories of golden nights at the theatre, had brought along friends, and had defied the Atlantic crossing made so daunting by the recent events in New York. They even made the first jokes I had heard about the dreadful happenings last month.

With regard to the entertainers that night, and there were ten of them, five of each sex, what possibly could better the fast patter of Bryan Burdon, who gave a fifteen-minute knockout series of non-stop jokes? The aforementioned Jan Hunt, who can be serious, was hilarious in her second appearance as a Dutch girl wailing about her boy friend whose eyes are as bright as a diamond by the Zuider Zee!

The Joys, that 'J' capital I will explain later, were tempered by the pathos of John Gower's superb rendition of Shabby Genteel, a song that moved the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, to tears, and still works today, or the song about the dying music hall singer, beloved by the crowd, who is exhorted to Sing Us One of the Old Songs, George, delivered with poignant sincerity by Lesley McClymont, a virtual newcomer to the set-up. Certainly, the audiences enter into the spirit of the entire evening, they always do.
It is called Late Joys, and thereby hangs a tale. Initially conceived as a platform for those actors in between jobs by the late Leonard Sachs (known to TV audiences as the Chairman of The Good Old Days), Players' Theatre opened its doors in 1936 in King Street, Covent Garden, where it was known as Evans' Late Joy's. In 1940, it moved to Albemarle Street and after the war to Villiers Street, formerly Gatti's Under the Arches, where it set up home until re-development of the arch forced it to move to the Duchess Theatre. It returned to a different arch, much higher up the hill of Villiers Street, in 1990, where it still resides.

With a membership of over 2,500 and a reputation that has not only crossed the Atlantic but also the entire world, people who have heard of it in Japan and New Zealand seek it out, it is one of the most interesting places to visit and one of the most unique centres of good old fashioned entertainment in London. You can dine there in a modestly priced restaurant, drink there in a pub-prices bar (late night licence) and meet your friends there in convivial and polite surroundings.

It is an oasis of old fashioned charm in an ever changing, and I am afraid, ever downgrading London, which is bound to appeal to anyone who cares to see how good manners may still be maintained. Membership is of course available, and so is the opportunity for older member of the public, and parties (Women's Institutes, and other groups) to attend the regular Thursday matinees. The bill changes every two weeks, and the pantomime, always a genuine Victorian script, is the longest running pantomime in London every year at Christmas time.

The coming pantomime, Aladdin, is set in Wales, it is an original mid-1880s script, and the wonderful lamp is, naturally, a miner's lamp.
These pantomimes are worth seeing if purely from a student's point of view, as it can be easily seen how the modern genre evolved, and they are truly hilarious.
The present bill of Late Joys runs another week, until October 28. There will be a further bill of music hall for two weeks before it gives precedence to this year's pantomime.