Now little more than a blue plaque in Islington, a new one-woman play lets music-hall sweetheart, Nelly Power take you through the highs and lows of a life lived in theatre.
We caught up with the playwright, JJ Leppink, to ask why now is the time for a play about Victorian Music Hall and Vaudeville.
Q: So the first thought that springs to mind is “Why her?” She is a lesser-known woman of the theatre who died more than 130 years ago – how did you even come across her?
A: A friend of mine, Charlotte Walker, who stars in the show – is a tour guide who leads groups around that area of London; there were roughly 40 music halls in Islington alone between 1850 and 1905 so much of her research centres around that and the buildings and people left behind.
A lot of the songs from the Victorian music halls do still survive today, The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery is one that’s actually had a bit of a revival thanks to its appearance in an episode of Peaky Blinders – the whole production team were very excited about that! The song itself is often credited to Marie Lloyd, who is remembered by many as the Queen of Music Hall.
But it was whilst researching Marie Lloyd that Charlotte found that, unfortunately, the song wasn’t Marie Lloyd’s, it was Nelly Power’s; stolen by Lloyd with the cheek that came with being a 15 year old who’d grown up in the theatre and the naive look that meant no one challenged her. Whilst she’d once had top billing at Drury Lane – unheard of for a woman back then – by the time she died, Nelly Power was deeply in debt and already headed for obscurity.
We’re reaching a point where more and more forgotten women from history are coming to light, especially those who are glossed over as part of bigger projects – like the moon landings, for example! Whilst Nelly Power’s contributions are not quite on a par, she was ground-breaking in her own way. Here was a woman who owned multiple properties herself (and retained them in her divorce), she married outside her faith and she took out an early form of restraining order against her husband; who turned around and took one out against her too.
More than that, she was a male impersonator. She had an act that pushed the boundaries of decency and comedy and she satirised the very people who had paid to see her perform. To put her in context, she was doing all of this at a time when the Suffragist movement was just beginning – it would be a good few years still before the Suffragettes were formed.
Q: Given that she was remembered through her blue plaque in 2017, did you find it difficult to find information on her?
A: There isn’t a lot out there about Nelly – and the little there is seems to contradict itself! Some of the first information we had on her was her name on a playbill, her divorce covered in the paper, and an article saying she had saved a child from drowning; already you’ve built up quite a picture! Times haven’t moved on all that much and, as a celebrity in her own time, Nelly’s life did pop up in the gossip section of the newspaper a few times. With some digging, we uncovered the “mysterious robbery” at her house that cost her over £1,500 in jewellery (just under £180,000 in today’s money) where the only plausible suspect was her husband; as well as pieces that hint at a slightly more sordid burlesque act she performed for a while and her involvement with a gentleman from the Raleigh Club. With all these hardships, it might sound like you’re in for a depressing theatre experience, but we’ve kept the play conversational, light-hearted and – we hope – funny, as it felt more in keeping with the image of Nelly we’d built.
Q: Where next for Nelly Power?
A: Blue Fire Theatre Company have just returned from dates in Winchester and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; they took Nelly home to perform as part of the Islington Museum’s exhibition “Music Hall in Islington” at the beginning of September and are now gearing up for an evening Off-West End at The Old Red Lion pub theatre on the 29th of September.
For tickets, go to https://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/marie-lloyd-stole-my-life.html