Thursday, 1 November 2012

Burlington Bertie in Liverpool. . .

One of the things I've missed by not being in Toronto this fall is the annual Cabaret Festival in the Distillery District, especially as this year featured Sophie Milman, Jean Stilwell & Patti Roach, Brent Carver (he's so amazing on stage!) along with regulars (and favourites) Jackie Richardson, Patricia O'Callaghan and Mike Ross AND homages to the musical Oliver! and the music from Fellini films.  Arrrgh, I would have loved to have been there - the festival goes from strength to strength each year which is just fantastic.

I'm not entirely bereft of cabaret in Liverpool though.  Last night I went to the Unity Theatre for The Girl I Left Behind, a one-woman show performed by Jessica Walker that explored the women who worked as male impersonators in the Victorian era and the first part of the twentieth century.  As she pointed out at the beginning, there was no deliberate ruse; the women sang in their own voices and the audiences were never in doubt as to their gender, which brings up all sorts of interesting ideas about the purpose and appeal of these performers, some of whom were famous in their day.  Walker certainly alters her voice though, to great effect, as she switches from opera to 1920s Harlem, to a series of songs performed by various "Johnnies" representing men from a bashful teenager to a randy wealthy senior, desperate to find the girl.

But there was one song in particular that I was waiting for.  When I was a child, I was a huge fan of Julie Andrews (still am).  While other kids were singing along to Disney, I was incessantly playing the soundtracks to The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady and in particular, the movie Star, in which she plays Gertrude Lawrence.   I didn't actually get a chance to see the movie until I was in my twenties, but I knew that record backwards and forwards.  And my favourite track was a music hall number called "Burlington Bertie From Bow".  This was made famous by Ella Shields, born in 1879.  Her husband, William Hargreaves wrote the song for her in 1915 and she performed it for decades, all over the world.  She even shared the stage with a very young Julie Andrews who is said to have modelled her character in Victor/Victoria after Shields.  Ella kept performing the song, right into her seventies and Walker chose to represent her last performance in 1952, a tired and somewhat creaky Shields who at one point forgot her lines.  After she finished, Ella collapsed on the stage and died shortly after.  You can her her singing her famous song here.

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