Directed by Neil Bartlett
Performed by Jessica Walker with Musical Direction by Joe Atkins
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“After the ball is over/After the break of morn
After the dancers’ leaving/After the stars are gone
Many a heart is aching/If you could read them all
Many the hopes that have vanished/After the ball.”
“After the Ball,” Charles K. Harris (1892)
A group of brave and talented women left hearts aching after their performances: aching men’s hearts; aching women’s hearts; aching celebrity hearts including those of Bea Lillie, Tallulah Bankhead, and Joan Crawford. What sort of women had this kind of broad audience appeal? What sort of songstress had the ability to leave so many aching hearts behind when on and off the stage?
And why did Annie Hindle, Ella Wesner, Ella Shields, Hetty King, Gladys Bentley, and Vesta Tilley leave the girl behind them, “dress as Gents,” and perform as male impersonators in England and America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Jessica Walker attempts to answer these questions in “The Girl I Left Behind Me” currently playing at 59E59 Theater C as part of “Brits Off Broadway.”
Ms. Walker, also donning trousers and a variety of typically male accessories, does more than successfully answer the above questions in her brilliant sixty-five minute performance; she challenges the audience to reconsider all prior misconceptions, preconceptions, and prejudgments about gender and human relationships.
Performing seventeen songs and providing significant historical information about the women who performed as men, Ms. Walker questions whether Annie and her counterparts “playing” was suggestion, provocation, substitution, or even identification. This sophisticated performance includes songs the public does not identify with the male impersonators who made them famous: “Down by the Old Mill Stream;” “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home;” and “After the Ball.”
“After the Ball” is the popular song written in 1891 by Charles K. Harris. In the song, a classic waltz in three-quarter time, an older man tells his niece why he has never married. At a ball, he saw his sweetheart kissing another man and he refused to listen to her explanation. Many years later, after the woman had died, he discovered that the man was in fact her brother and not another suitor. How powerful this song becomes when sung originally by Vesta Tilley and now by Ms. Walker. The layers of gender-bending beauty seem endless.
“After the Ball” became the most successful song of its era, which at that time was gauged by the sales of sheet music. In 1892 it sold over two million copies of sheet music. Its total sheet music sales exceed five million copies, making it the best seller in Tin Pan Alley’s history. Mr. Harris was the first composer to earn one million dollars in royalties.
Perhaps the most touching story is that of Annie Hindle who married her female dresser Miss Annie Ryan. Giving her name as Charles Hindle, the “groom” gave the clergyperson no other choice but to marry the pair. This story empowers audiences to examine gender and culture issues in a new and significant way. What does it mean to be ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine?’ More profoundly, what does it mean to be ‘male’ and ‘female?’ At the end of her performance, Ms. Walker thanks the women who left their girls behind and explored a vast territory of important gender-related issues. We need to thank Ms/ Walker and Brits Off Broadway for bringing compelling and engaging theatre to New York City.
Indeed, Brits Off Broadway’s annual visit to New York City demonstrates the importance of collaboration in theatre across geographic boundaries. It is a pleasure to see gifted actors and challenge audiences with their craft, their commitment to live theatre, and their insistence on perfection.