The life of an oft-forgotten entertainer from Notts gets the spotlight in If I Catch Alphonso, Tonight!
In those 'Famous folk from Nottingham' type lists, you've probably never seen Billy Merson and yet he was a musical hall star of his day and one of the first performers to appear in 'talking pictures'.
Performing until the end of his life in 1946, Merson also appeared on TV and radio. As he was born in the city in 1881, it seems fitting that the musical play If I Catch Alphonso, Tonight!, directed by Joyce Fisher, should visit the Nottingham Arts Theatre. The turbulent life story of the actor and comic vocalist is named after the title of his most famous song.
No, I've never heard of it either and to be honest, having heard it, it's unmemorable, but don't stop reading there because despite the fact the songs and humour are obviously dated, the production itself is absolutely captivating.
Miles Jenner plays the part of Merson in this one man show. Roger Roser accompanies, and occasionally acts, hidden away off stage from the piano.
We begin at the end of his life as Jenner takes us through Merson's life story with swift on stage wardrobe changes for the songs. He straightens his hats in a mirror with a photo of the late performer on the rear.
The set is simple. A chair, primarily used for the judge in Merson’s many court appearances and a backdrop with the twenty one musical numbers. Oxford Theatre’s young woman sports a mortar-board is to the left of him and London’s Theatre Royal to the right.
Merson first appeared on the variety stage at Birmingham in 1900. For some years he toured the provinces as an acrobat and clown as part of a successful duo with friend, Bernard Whiteman called Snakella & Travella. Born William Henry Thompson they were advised to adopt American style names. A flip of a coin and he became 'Merson'. It was when he pursued a solo career that things really took off and he became an undisputed king of entertainment. taking the London Music Halls by storm in 1909. The following year he wrote 'The Spaniard that Blighted my Life' to sing in pantomime at Brighton's Theatre Royal. The song would both make and break him, thanks to another legal dispute.
Comedy seemed much simpler then, silly songs had them rolling in the aisles and to be fair, still managed to raise a few chuckles from the theatre audience.
Whilst Jenner doesn't attempt the Nottingham accent, there are plenty of local references. He met his wife outside the Theatre Royal where he was performing as a comedian and later played at a music hall in Ilkeston.
Despite the fact, like many, I know nothing about the subject matter of the production, Jenner keeps the audiences attention throughout. What could on first glance be a long list of musical numbers come thick and fast and are, it has to be said, pretty short. Despite the passing of time we can all relate to Merson one way or another, be it his discovery of mentioning local businesses in songs to earn gifts (think modern day influencer), his make or break performances in the musical halls (think Britains Got Talent) down to his bad luck! ( think, 'Yep, that's my life')
The second half of the production is a fast but sombre affair. The death of his wife, bankcrupcy, Al Johnson nicking his song and ultimately his own death, bringing a tear to the eye as Jenner walks of the stage and to the rear of the auditorium as he ends the song 'I'm Going Away'
Jenner never misses a beat in the dialogue of this enthralling two hour show and does a tremendous task in telling the story of our sadly unknown local star.
This unique show has 'make it into a film' written all over it to ensure his legacy lives on. A born entertainer, he was the inspiration for future generations of comedians.
If I Catch Alphonso, Tonight! was at Nottingham Arts Theatre on Saturday 4 August 2018.
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