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Exclusive: Who is Vesta Tilley?

First Published 12 February 2015, Last Updated 13 February 2015

Playwright Joy Wilkinson is bringing the story of Vesta Tilley, one of the most famous music hall performers of the last 100 years, to the stage in a new family production at the Unicorn Theatre. Never heard of her? Don’t worry, we hadn’t either, so we asked Wilkinson to fill us in and discovered an incredible story of a woman who went form child star to be crowned ‘Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant’ in the most challenging of times.

As the writer explains in this exclusive article, this is no normal rags to riches story, and her play, which challenges everything from gender roles to the power of theatre in times of conflict, is proof of that. Intrigued? Read on and be inspired…

I had never heard of Vesta Tilley. She was a groundbreaking cultural icon, one of the most famous women in the world a hundred years ago, yet now hardly anyone knows her name. As Sara Maitland, in her study of Vesta, says: if you want lasting fame, don’t be a popular entertainer!

When I first came across her story, I was researching a TV project on World War I and was getting ground down by the darkness of trench warfare and death statistics when Vesta Tilley shone out like the star that she was. As ‘Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant’, Vesta performed in male drag at music halls and recruited hundreds of young men to sign up as soldiers. I was immediately hooked – here was a powerful woman right at the heart of the war effort. This could be a unique way into dramatising World War I, but an intrinsically theatrical way rather than televisual. Vesta’s whole world was the stage, live performance and her relationship with the audience. Even her husband was a theatre impresario. I knew this had to be a play.

Vesta first performed on stage at the age of four and was an instant hit. Soon after, she went on the road, touring music halls all over Britain, supporting her family with her precocious talent. While still a child, she experimented with male impersonation and rapidly won fame and fortune, becoming known as the ‘London Idol’, playing principal boy to Dan Leno’s panto dames. She even toured America, winning their hearts too. Hers is the original rags to riches tale that every X Factor contestant dreams of. And then, right in the middle of it, war breaks out.

It is this that makes Vesta’s story way more than rags to riches. Suddenly the men she had been lampooning were going off to fight and die. She couldn’t poke fun at them any longer, but audiences still needed to laugh, more than ever. And the government needed troops. With her trademark ingenuity, Vesta came up with her new persona as the Recruiting Sergeant. In some ways it was her greatest success, but there’s also a dark underbelly to it. As ‘Vesta Tilley’s Platoon’ marched off to meet its fate on the battlefields of Europe, Vesta herself stayed behind, safe in the footlights. After the war she ventured to Europe, but it was to retire in Monte Carlo, resplendent with a peerage and curiously reactionary attitudes to women.

The story of Vesta in World War I asks a lot of questions about the actions of people in power in war, about women with no real power to change things, and about the role of theatre in war, whether it’s to rally or console, confront or escape. In some ways, Vesta Tilley was way ahead of her time, in others she was entirely bound by that era. I don’t want to judge what she did by our standards 100 years later, but to look at her story and use it to ask what, if anything, we can do about wars going on in the world now, and about smaller conflicts closer to home. Whether we stick to our guns or try to find peaceful resolutions. The play also asks questions about gender stereotypes, which can be as rigid today – albeit in different ways – as they were in Victorian times. The pressure for kids to conform is still immense, so to see Vesta learn to express herself by choosing her own identity can be very empowering.

The great thing about writing family theatre is that children love asking tough questions and grappling with answers, imagining new possibilities. If you grip them with a story, give them characters they can love, then they will go with you to dark and fascinating places, grapple with ideas which will remain in their heads, helping them look at the world in new ways. I hope Vesta’s story will do that for audiences at the Unicorn, as well as entertaining them with all the thrills of the music hall, from singing and dancing to performing dogs! And I hope it will mean that a new generation will have heard of Vesta Tilley and her platoon of courageous recruits, so they will not be forgotten.

Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant plays at the Unicorn Theatre from 13 February. You can watch a trailer above here.

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