Lola Wingrove and I recently spent an afternoon checking in with ‘The Vital Spark’, our play about the life of Jenny Hill, comedienne of the late-Victorian music halls. It’s coming along well. Lola really knows her subject, and she’s very capable of bringing Jenny to life for me in description, so it should be exciting to watch Jenny emerge on the page and stage, as well.
One of the particularly exciting things we did during the afternoon was listening to some of the music she’s recorded from sheet music from Hill’s career. I had an idea of what I thought ‘music hall tunes’ would be- and they were nothing like it. There’s a lot more variety than I expected, even some in minor keys (not at all the cheery, vacuous oom-pah sort of ditties I was expecting). Most of the songs are quite narrative in terms of lyrics, but many of them have a final verse or two that turns the entire meaning on its head, and it’s very clear why Lola has pointed out that Jenny Hill’s songs were political in nature. Leave those final verses off and they might be just another story, but when they choose to make a point, they’re not very subtle. I’m trying hard not to picture Jenny as the Victorian theatre’s answer to Saturday Night Live.
A challenge for Lola- a fun one, I hope- is that, while Jenny jumps of the pages of historical documents, the other characters in her story and our play are either just names, or are completely original creations. They are up against some challenging competition, because Jenny comes across so vibrantly, but they will ultimately need to be just as real as she is. It’s easy, when working on a historical character or situation, to get quite reliant on there being material to work from; I think we both found that, initially, at least, it takes a sidestep in thinking to balance that very documented person with characters whose histories must be entirely imagined. Of course, the actors will ultimately have a major hand in their creation, but they all need to have something from which to work, not just the person playing Jenny. That said, I found it really enjoyable to work with Lola to try to imagine a person into being from nothing.
I don’t want to give too much away so early on, when the play is subject to so many potential changes. But I will say that I really can’t wait to get Jenny onto the stage, where you’ll be able to see her in a lot of different roles and situations. I’m starting to feel like she’s a person I actually know, and she keeps challenging my expectations. Hopefully one day in the not too distant future she’ll do the same thing for new audiences.