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Theatrical Revue

Chorus girls playing The Postcards in the Country Cousins scene in Kill That Fly!, sepia tone photograph, Royal Alhambra Theatre, London, 1912. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Chorus girls playing The Postcards in the Country Cousins scene in Kill That Fly!, sepia tone photograph, Royal Alhambra Theatre, London, 1912. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Early revue

Revue developed in the 1890s and was originally a collection of short sketches, songs, dances, comic interludes and even short plays. It differed from variety in that the acts were linked by a topical idea or theme.

In 1903 the first black revue 'In Dahomey' reached the Shaftesbury Theatre introducing ‘The Cakewalk’, which became the latest dance craze. Other successful box offices imports from America included the revue 'Blackbird' starring Florence Mills which opened in 1926.

Some music halls introduced revue as part of their regular programmes, featuring striking sets and large casts. By 1912, revues were very fashionable mostly because they included the latest American ragtime songs, like ‘Everybody’s Doing It’ and Irving Berlin’s ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’. First of the big American-style spectacular revues was 'Hullo Rag-Time!' in 1912. 'Hullo Tango!' at the London Hippodrome in 1913 had costumes designed by Leon Bakst.

Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, photograph, 20th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, 20th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Alice Delysia in C.B.Cochran’s 'Mayfair and Montmartre', 1920-30. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Alice Delysia in C.B.Cochran’s 'Mayfair and Montmartre', 1920-30. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sheet music for 'Bubbles' from the revue 'Bubbly', printed by Ascherberg, Hopwood & Crew Ltd, 1917. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sheet music for 'Bubbles' from the revue 'Bubbly', printed by Ascherberg, Hopwood & Crew Ltd, 1917. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Revue in 1920s and 1930s

Revue was the perfect entertainment for post-World War I (1914–18) audiences, who wanted their entertainment light, fast-moving, topical and sophisticated. A more intimate revue developed where the emphasis was on wit and style rather than music and spectacle. The two most significant producers of intimate revue in the 1920s and 1930s were André Charlot and C. B. Cochran and Cochran produced 'Odds and Ends' in 1914 starring the French actress Alice Delysia. It ran for over 500 performances. Delysia was to be a big star in England for the next thirty years.

André Charlot had introduced big-scale revue at the Empire Theatre before managing Cochran’s intimate revues. Inspired by their success, he branched out on his own. He had a good eye for young talent and introduced among others Beatrice Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence, Jessie Matthews and Jack Buchanan. His writers included Noël Coward. Several Charlot revues toured to America and British revue stars enjoyed a high profile on both sides of the Atlantic.

The London Pavilion

C. B. Cochran established the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus as the home of revue. In the 1920s and 1930s the first night of a new Cochran revue was an annual theatrical highlight and a big social occasion. Noël Coward wrote music, lyrics and sketches and appeared in two of the most famous revues: 'On With the Dance' (1925) with choreography and appearances by former Diaghilev star Leonide Massine and 'This Year of Grace' (1928). Cochran loved dance and it always played a big part in his revues. In the 1920s and 1930s, before ballet companies could offer round-the-year employment in England, many dancers appeared in revue between their ballet engagements.

Alice Delysia was one of C.B.Cochran’s biggest stars. She came from Paris to play in his 'Odds and Ends' in 1914. Within five years she was offered a New York transfer at £2500 a week (a vast amount, about £50,000 a week today). In 1922, Cochran brought her back to London for his new show 'Mayfair and Montmartre'. London audiences were thrilled at her return. Her sparkling personality, fine acting and charming French accent had made her hugely popular. 'Mayfair and Montmartr'e was a grand Babylonian extravaganza written around Delysia’s talents.

Unfortunately, she got a throat infection which delayed the first night and, only six weeks after the eventual opening, she was advised to quit immediately, or risk losing her voice forever. Mabel Green, brought in as replacement, could not match Delysia’s star quality, and the show had to close, leaving Cochran with losses of over £20,000 (about £400,000 today).

'Bubbly' was a popular revue produced by André Charlot, the Frenchman who was one of the most prolific 20th-century West End producers. He became famous for his series of intimate revues, some co-produced by C.B.Cochran.The music sheet is for 'Bubbles', a piano solo arrangement of songs from the revue. It includes the songs: 'We'll have a little Cottage', 'Reckless Reggie', and 'She'd a Hole in her Stocking'. 'Bubbly' opened at the Comedy Theatre in May 1917 and featured 12 sketches, or 'Bubbles', as they were billed. The public loved the light and frothy mixture of songs and sketches which were a much-needed antidote to the gloomy news about World War I. The cast included the 25-year-old Jack Hulbert, who went on to become a star of musical comedy.

Charles B.Cochran, portrait in programme for his production The Miracle

Charles B.Cochran, from the programme for 'The Miracle', printed by Gale & Polden Ltd, Olympia Theatre, London, 1911. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Programme for Charles Cochran's show 'Night Lights', Trocadero Grillroom, London, 1930s. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Programme for Charles Cochran's show 'Night Lights', Trocadero Grillroom, London, 1930s. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Charles B. Cochran

Charles B. Cochran was last in a great line of showmen (he never called himself a producer or impresario) guided by their instincts rather than their wallets. Cochran shows brought together the most talented performers, designers, composers and writers. He promoted wild west shows, wrestling and boxing with as much enthusiasm as theatre. His shows could be opulent, extravagant and expensive or he could just promote a solo dancer. Not surprisingly, Cochran was bankrupted on more than one occasion.

Affectionately known as Cockie, he was stage struck from an early age. He wanted to act but realised he didn’t have the talent and so went into theatrical management. His clients included Houdini the great escapologist and the wrestler Hackenschmidt. He presented fun fairs, circuses and rodeos and introduced roller-skating to France and Germany.

In 1911 Cochran presented 'The Miracle', a huge spectacular pageant, in the vast space of Olympia, London’s major exhibition hall. In 1932 he mounted a new production at the Lyceum.

Cochran made no snobbish distinctions between culture and popular entertainment. As manager of several London theatres, he produced plays by Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill and Sean O’Casey. He established cabaret at the Trocadero. He loved Spanish dance and brought the great Argentina to London. He backed Diaghilev’s 1920 London season and lost a fortune. He was a governor and member of the council of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. His press-cutting books, in the V&A collections, run to over 140 volumes and even so do not cover every one of his productions.

Cochran revues

The famous Cochran revues were annual events at the London Pavilion in the 1920s and 1930s. To work for Cochran was a great honour. The shows included numbers by the exciting young American songwriters like Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart as well as English composers like Noël Coward and Vivian Ellis.

Cochran didn’t care whether a person was famous or not so long as they had talent. Leonide Massine had been star dancer-choreographer with Diaghilev, but Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor were unknown when they made ballets for Cochran in the 1920s. So were many of his designers, like Rex Whistler and Cecil Beaton.

A great feature of the revues were the ‘Cochran Young Ladies’. They were pretty, could sing and dance in an elegant manner and epitomised the ‘ideal’ British girl of the time. One, Marjorie Robertson, later changed her name and became famous as the actress Anna Neagle.

Cochran’s association with Noël Coward started with the revue 'On With the Dance' in 1925 and lasted ten years. He produced Coward’s greatest musical successes, 'Bitter Sweet' and 'Cavalcade'. An association with Vivian Ellis started in 1930 and Ellis gave Cochran his greatest musical success with 'Bless the Bride' in 1947. It was so successful that Cochran became bored with it and shut it down while it was still playing to full houses!

Revue after 1940

By the 1940s and 1950s the style of revue had become light, charming and witty. The famous wartime revues were 'Sweet and Low', S'weeter and Lower' and 'Sweetest and Lowest' starring Hermione Gingold and Hermione Baddeley. Stars of 1950's revues included Ian Carmichael and Joyce Grenfell. Bamber Gascoigne’s one famous revue 'Share My Lettuce' included Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams in the cast. Michael Flanders and Donald Swann contributed songs to many revues and eventually became performers themselves, singing their own songs around the world in 'At the Drop of a Hat'. Even Harold Pinter was a revue sketch writer.

'The Punch Revue' in 1955 included poems by Louis MacNeice, W H Auden and John Betjeman, set to music by composers such as Benjamin Britten, Larry Adler and Donald Swann. Nearly 30 years before 'Cats', two T S Eliot poems from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats were dramatised in a revue and performed by two dancers.

Most famous of the 1950's revues was 'Cranks', devised by choreographer John Cranko with designs by John Piper.

The Windmill Theatre

The Windmill Theatre evolved its own particular brand of revue, mixing sketches, dances and comics with their famous nudes. Before the abolition of stage censorship in 1968, the Lord Chamberlain ruled that nudes were acceptable on stage so long as they stood still. This gave rise to the famous saying ‘If it moves, it’s rude’. Once censorship was abolished, revues like 'Oh Calcutta!' and 'The Dirtiest Show in Town' showed more explicit nudity and sexual licence.

In 1960 four young Oxbridge graduates changed the face of revue for ever. 'Beyond the Fringe' with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller returned revue to a more biting critical role and kick-started the 1960s topical satire boom in theatre and television.

Spectacular revue survived in the big showgirl extravaganzas at venues like the London Casino, sometimes as showcases for singers or comedians. These shows were imitations of the great Paris revues at the Folies Bergère or the Lido. Although they rarely appeared in England, the most famous troupe of show dancers were the Bluebell Girls, who starred in Paris and in Las Vegas. Most of the girls were British.

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