Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's reviews of The Second City Presents: Nothing to Lose (But Our Chains), Twelfth Night, Annie, and Crazy for You
The Old Bull and Bush is a real historic pub in the Hampstead neighborhood of London, which became famous when music hall star Florrie Forde performed a song that referenced it in 1904. Catherine Flye, author and director, originally presented this show at Washington's Arena Stage from 1997-2003 and brings it back with some of the original performers.
The cultural immersion begins in the theater's lobby, which houses a pop-up pub open before the show and at intermission. In addition to alcoholic beverages, the menu includes such British snacks as mince pies, sausage rolls, and prawn cocktail-flavored crisps (or potato chips, as they're known on this side of the pond).
The music hall was the rough English equivalent of vaudeville, with acts ranging from the ridiculous to the sentimental, and a heavy dose of audience participation. In other words, the up-for-everything cast does a little of this and a little of that, with almost continuous accompaniment by pianist and music director Joseph Walsh.
Highlights on the silly side: Albert Coia, a sparkplug in a loud plaid suit (costumes designed by Michael Sharp) in his two solos, "Me Little Yo-Yo" and "The Night I Appeared as Macbeth," and a bit where he plays a ventriloquist's dummy; Flye as a bedraggled fairy from the English pantomime tradition and, as stage monologist Joyce Grenfell, playing a nursery school teacher doing her best to keep the children's Nativity play from falling apart; and Tracey Stephens as Forde, vamping through "Please Don't Touch My Plums."
On the more serious side, Bob McDonald recounts the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when British and German troops in France laid down their arms and embraced their opponents on the first Christmas Day during World War I, with the song "Christmas in the Trenches." He also performs Rudyard Kipling's "The Road to Mandalay" in appropriately imperial style and gives a lovely performance of "The Christmas Song," although it's not true to the period, having been written in the U.S. in the 1940s.