The Peepshow

The debut revue from the Julian Wylie and Jas W. Tate organization at the London Hippodrome was The Peepshow launched 14th April 1921. Described as a tropical fantasia it proved to be a runaway success partly because several of the main scenes had already been tried and tested in previous Wylie–Tate productions, and so from the outset, the production was viewed as being polished and well produced.

Programme for The Peepshow

Wylie-Tate had a huge reputation for touring excellent productions in the regions and were already old hands at this popular game before they presented their first West End revue at the Hippodrome. ‘They have only to take some of the most successful items from their touring productions add to them a few novel features, engage some well known artists and lo and behold they have an entertainment ready which is almost certain to be successful.’ These scenes, especially the two big spectacular scenes of the Song Shop and Down Dickens Street, possessed none of the rough edges which most revue scenes had at the beginning since they had already been worked up, elaborated and improved upon after many months of touring.

The company was headed by Mona Vivian, Stanley Lupino, Annie Croft, Reginald Sharland and Fred Allandale and the sixteen original scenes were arranged charmingly as “peeps”. They were all loosely interlinked to form a more cohesive story than was usual in a revue, peppered with all kinds of topical interludes and nostalgic reminiscences of times past that enlivened proceedings. After a short while two scenes were dropped and many of the peeps were change around.

At the start (scene designed by Tom Webster) two American gentlemen George Cricklewood (Stanley Lupino) and Lord Harry Coe (Reginald Sharland) were guests of Professor Duddard (Albert Darnley) and Eslie (Mona Vivian). The professor is carrying out experiments for reaching the moon and the two gentlemen like the idea of chipping off a piece of the moon so agree to fly off in the professor’s newly invented ‘Jules Verne’ giant sky rocket.

Annie Croft in some of her costumes from The PeepshowOn the Moon the two explorers discover it is inhabited by Pierrots and Pierrettes. They are met by the chief Pierrot (Fred Allandale) and his daughter Light O’The Moon (Annie Croft) who explains some of their lunar ways and customs. This was described as ‘a wonderous scene, beautifully and brilliantly devised’ and featured two songs ‘Hello Little Girlie’ and ‘I do Like Being in Love’.

In On the Way Home, Light O’the Moon (Annie Croft) decides to visit earth with the two travelers and is shown some of the interesting sights from the past and the present and finally falls in love with one of the young men. However, on the downward trip the rocket meets with a mishap and the party are plunged in the sea off Scotland where they find themselves in the Fourth Peep in the Castle McBluff The Castle is occupied by a wealthy and practical American played by Fred Allandale who is wanting to collect the mountain dew at its source and with a gathering of the clans there is a Pageant of Bonnie Scotland with a number of nice girls in kilts and the visible romance of Scotland. Mona Vivian sang ‘The Kiltie Brigade’ and Annie Croft sang her Flora Macdonald song ‘Prince of my Heart” with the background changing from baronial hall to ocean shore.

After Captain Speckleton’s Lecture, a comic interlude given by Fred Allandale about Arctic exploration was the Song Shop, one of the big spectacular scenes of the show with reminiscences of old time songs. Described as ‘the real scintillating gem’, the Song Shop had been a much favoured scene in Wylie-Tate’s touring revue The Passing Show of 1920 and cleverly conjured up the atmosphere of the music halls of the nineties.

The Song Shop scene from The Peepshow

This scene depicted the window of the publishing house of Francis, Day and Hunter and the principals impersonated former old music hall favourites and sang songs that made each character famous. There was Charles Godfrey singing Hi-tiddly-hi-ti, Charles Coborn with ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte carlo’, Eugene Stratton’s ‘Little Dolly Daydream’, Stanley Lupino as Dan Leno singing ‘Mary Ann’s Refused Me’ and Mona Vivian’s amusing impression of Maggie Duggan singing ‘In Her Hair She Wore a White Camelia’ and another wonderful take on Lottie Collins. The conclusion was a good old time minstrel show with costumes of orange and purple.

One of the costume sketches by Dolly Tree for the Dutch Garden number in The Peepshow

Other scenes included The Strand, Ministry of Waste, Pre-War Land (a nostalgic look at funny pre-war life) and Curing a Cold, Stanley Lupino’s funny scene about all the fussy people who are usually on hand on at these times.

Another big number was My Lady’s Dressing Table, a ballet (taken from the regional revue The Whirl of Today), with the dancing of Ruth French, the Hippodrome Eight (as powder puffs), Annie Croft as My Lady and other representatives of a ladies boudoir including the hand mirror, hairbrush, scent spray, Lip salve, the patch and manicure.

In Holland and A Dutch Garden was Desiree Ellinger singing ‘The Voice’ a fairy-tale legend about a frog turned into a prince when a fair lady kissed it along with the Hippodrome eight as assistants to Mona Vivian in a clog dance and a series of Dutch Festival costumes with inspiration derived from old Dutch prints to get the right effect.

Undoubtedly the most spectacular scene was Down Dickens Street (taken from the regional revue The Follies of 1920) described as ‘one of the most ably conceived items which have been seen in a revue for years.’ 

The Down Dickens Street scene in The Peepshow

A long procession of the best known characters and scenes from the Dickens novels were introduced all in appropriate Victorian costume with the White Hart Inn, Bleak House, Scrooge’s Front Door, the Old Curiosity Shop and Fezziwig’s Store. Notably, Stanley Lupino played Scrooge, Sam Weller and Uriah Heep, Mona Vivian played Oliver Twist, Little Nell and Poor Jo and Annie Croft played Dolly Varden and Nancy.

There was also a Persian Carpet Ballet with Desiree Ellinger as the singer with narghili and turban, Ruth French as the dancer and the Arabian rag sung by Mona Vivian, J. Phillips and Leslie Sarony. The scene was made to look like a vast carpet emporium and the chorus had to look like a huge Persian carpet.

The finale was a simple scene where the two lovers, Annie Croft and Reginald Sharland, make up their minds in the song ‘Find Me Two Dear Eyes’ to go back to the moon.

The reviews were laudatory: The Tatler said ‘unquestionably one of the most remarkable productions of its kind’; The Era ‘brimful and running over with tastefulness, fun and a fancifulness seldom exceeded in the annals of English entertainment’ and The Bystander ‘there are flashes of genius in this revue with its beautiful mounting and agreeably refreshing fun.’

One of the costume sketches by Dolly Tree for the Persian Carpet scene in The Peepshow

Of the costumes and gowns, which were all designed by Dolly Tree, The Stage observed ‘it is staged and dressed with an originality of design and colouring that cannot fail to please those who delight in beautiful things.’

There was equal praise for all the principals but Annie Croft in particular was admired for her charming personality and was regarded as ‘beautiful, dainty and charming of voice.’

By July 1921 there were various changes in the programme with two new features introduced both from America and Renee Reel replaced Mona Vivian. The Weaver Brothers presented a novel musical act appearing in the guise of ‘hayseeds’ and after opening with a typical Southern melody to the accompaniment of the banjo they proceed to extract ‘music’ from a range of artifcacts such as a stable fork adapted as a one string fiddle and then carpenter saws. But the spectacular ‘turn’ was Karyl Norman presenting ‘The Creole Fashion Plate’. This act had already performed in variety elsewhere in England for a short time before landing this plum spot in a London revue. Norman, as a charmingly gowned lady sang an introductory number in a mezzo soprano and then followed with a spirited Spanish number. The audience were hardly prepared for the surprise when Norman took of his wig to reveal ‘a young man with a baritone voice and an ingratiating smile.’ He was in fact one of America’s leading female impersonators following in the delicate footsteps of Julian Eltinge. Further songs followed and Norman’s act was well received and described as ‘finely staged and dressed.’ Indeed, the dressing was so admired that his mother gave a press conference and allowed journalists to inspect the gowns and explained the technicalities of how they were made. But sadly according to a later story ‘he didn’t set the Thames on fire.’

To make way for these additional acts the scenes The Castle of MacBluff, Down Dickens Street and Carpets were deleted but to freshen things up a bit two new scenes – Chickweed’s Garden and The Valley of the Echoes – were added. For the latter, magical changes of costumes, makeup and properties and scenery invented and designed by Adrian V. Samoiloff were introduced. Somewhere within the show was also the Pogo parade with the chorus girls dressed in weird costumes using pogo sticks.

After 421 performances, The Peepshow closed at the Hippodrome on 15th December 1921 to make way for the Christmas pantomime. For the regional run which began in spring 1922 and continued through 1923, the production was completely revised and only comprised 10 peeps many of which did not appear in the original or revised production.

All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent

Sources:
Pearsons Magazine, The Era, The Stage, The Tatler, The Sketch, the Bystander

Programmes

Notes:

The story was written by Lauri Wylie with some additional scenes by R.P. Weston and Bert Lee, the song lyrics were by Clifford Harris and Valentine, the music by Jas W. Tate and the dances staged by Gus Sohlke.

Mona Vivian and Annie Croft’s gowns were executed by Idare et cie and all other gowns were by Cubitt and Manger. The costumes were executed by Alias, Pascaud, Clarkson, Berman and Betty S. Roberts.

The scenery was created by Marc Henri and Laverdet, Conrad Tritchler, Philip Howden and Bruce Smith.

Programme for regional run : 1st Peep On the Road to London, 2nd Peep Darker London, 3rd Peep Brighter London, 4th Peep The Spanish Way, 5th Peep An Old Dutch Garden, 6th Peep Go Away Cupid, 7th Peep The Valley of Echoes, 8th Peep The Piano Next Door, 9th Peep A Persian Carpet Factory and 10th Peep Main Street.

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