Review: The Star, An Entertainment At The Playhouse

Eithne Browne Photo: Robert Day
IN 1866 David Lazarus, new proprietor of the Star Concert Hall on Williamson Square, replaced it with a new building to designs by Edward Davies. In just 9 months The Star Music Hall was complete and it opened its doors on Boxing Day that same year. It remained a successful Musical Variety theatre until, in 1911, it was acquired as home to the newly formed Liverpool Repertory Company and in 1917 acquired the name we know it by today – The Playhouse.There’s my history lesson – something that Ken Dodd advised Michael Wynn to steer clear of when writing his newly commissioned 150th birthday celebration for the Playhouse. “Don’t make it educational, and don’t make it boring” he suggested. Armed with this advice, and a compendium of classic music hall songs, Wynn set about creating his new entertainment “The Star”, a play that’s part comedy, part melodrama and part grand old music hall.The stage is filled with sumptuously painted scenery and a cast of 7 players wear over 80 beautifully detailed costumes between them. In the tradition of the period, proceedings are controlled by an MC, Michael Starke playing The Chairman, who is mysterious about his real name.Stalwart of The Star is Dame Ellen Bloggs (Eithne Browne) who is elegantly dressed and has been predicting her impending demise for over 30 years. Tempers fray when her old sparring partner the risqué Ida Valentine, played by Michelle Butterly, returns from a sojourn in Spain where she’s had an affair with one Alfredo Spinoli. The acid comments fly backstage whenever the two meet, as Ida vies for top billing. This isn’t helped by the torch that the Chairman carries for Ida, whose affections he hopes to rekindle.The young dresser Dora dreams of a new love, not realising that the handsome but shy stagehand Jack might be everything she needs. Helen Carter and Jack Rigby provide a mixture of funny and touching scenes in this romantic thread.Meanwhile, Danny O’Brien plays a woefully dreadful comic, who spends the entire show trying out new acts; an escapologist, a memory man, a conjurer, and at one point delivers a rollicking rendition of When Father Papered the Parlour, abetted by Starke and Rigby. This is just one example of some 24 music hall numbers woven into the plot, many of which are cleverly used to move the story along. In “The Spaniard that Blighted My Life”, Michael Starke tells of the Chairman’s hatred of Alfredo Spinoli, and in Helen Carter’s “Are We To Part Like This, Bill?”, she mourns her previous lost love, and gets the first opportunity to demonstrate her ability in blending a tremendous singing voice with witty characterisation.Even the mysterious Mr Charles, played by Kevin Harvey skulking around in the shadows, has moments in the spotlight, with “Champagne Charlie” and “The Night I Appeared as Macbeth”. It takes a while for the cast to cotton on to the real reason for his looming presence, and it’s not until Dame Ellen’s final number that this line of the plot is resolved. “The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery” is a complete showstopper for Eithne Browne here, and there are very few dry eyes in the house by the end of it.Director Philip Wilson has given the stage crew a near-impossible feat of scene changes, as the clever use of flown cloths and flats keep switching the view from front of house to backstage, and into the dressing rooms. This leads to some slightly clunky changes here and there, but only serves to add to the verisimilitude of everything taking place in a Victorian Music Hall.In the Playhouse’s newly reopened orchestra pit, a live band play under the direction of Alex Smith, who has also prepared the musical arrangements for the show. Classic numbers from Michelle Butterly’s “Oh, What A Beauty” to Helen Carter’s “Burlington Bertie” get the audience singing along, and the comedy songs are reclaimed gems, including Jack Rigby’s splendid rendition of “The Rest of the Day’s Your Own”.Expect something different in this funny, affectionate and beautifully staged entertainment, that makes a fitting tribute to the Grand Old Lady of Williamson Square – the Playhouse itself.The Star plays until 14th January.Review by Philip Swann