What her grandad did in the Great War, now singer Marlena Kellie is re-creating in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Oh! What A Lovely War

Marlena Kellie, left, going through her Oh! What A Lovely War solo with Pick Me Up Theatre musical director Natalie Walker

ART is imitating life for singer Marlena Kellie, who has joined Pick Me Up Theatre’s 60th anniversary production of Oh! What A Lovely War.

From March 31 to April 8, at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, she will play her part in re-creating the shows her grandfather would have performed in during the First World War, singing the lead on Now You’ve Got Yer Khaki On.

Devised and presented by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in 1963 before being turned into a film by Richard Attenborough in 1969, Oh! What A Lovely War is a satirical chronicle of the Great War, told through songs and documents in the form of a seaside Pierrot entertainment.

This photograph of a First World War entertainment troupe shows Marlena Kellie’s grandfather, Richard Palmer, centre, with his first wife, Marion Williams, next to him in the nurse’s uniform

While rehearsing, Leeds jazz singer and actress Marlena realised the costumes and songs from Robert Readman’s production were reminiscent of her own family’s acting career.

“My grandfather, his first wife and my grandmother were all in entertainment troupes during the First World War,” she says. “I found some wonderful old photos of them all – and they are the real-life versions of what we’re doing on stage.”

Marlena’s Romany grandfather, Richard Palmer, had an act he would perform at travelling fairs and later in the music hall, and he was part of Fred Karno’s circus too.

This troupe of Pierrots – dressed exactly as the original cast of Oh! What A Lovely War would have been – features Marlena’s grandfather, Richard Palmer, and her grandmother, Greta Palmer

Marlena’s parents, Eddie Palmer and Shirley Kellie, travelled the country with their own club act, settling down when Marlena was three years old.

Carrying on the Romany tradition, Marlena can sometimes be found telling fortunes but concentrates on club singing and acting. She was one of the trifle-bearing women seen charging joyfully along in last winter’s Argos Christmas advert!

“I used to be embarrassed by my ‘otherness’ in school, but now I embrace it,” she says. “I live with two fabulous drag queens and a lovely little dog called Whoopie.

Marlena Kellie’s parents, Eddie Palmer and Shirley Kellie, who toured their cabaret act for many years

“I can’t quite believe how life has led me to Oh! What A Lovely War but it feels like it was meant to be.  My parents are sadly no longer with me, but I very much feel I am carrying on the family tradition.”

Meanwhile, York actor Ian Giles, who will play the Master of Ceremonies in Pick Me Up’s production, has found an image of his paternal grandfather, Sergeant William Giles, from Christmas Day 1915.

It shows his grandfather with men of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry at Fleurbaix, near Béthune, northern France. “He is the sergeant standing upright pretty well at the
centre of the photograph,” says Ian.

“I can’t quite believe how life has led me to Oh! What A Lovely War but it feels like it was meant to be,” says singer and actress Marlena Kellie

” It was found in my nan’s purse when she died in the mid-1970s. She had carried it with her everywhere. Gramp survived the war and lived well into his eighties.”

In a moving scene in the play, British and German soldiers sing carols and have a drink together over the barbed wire of No Man’s Land.

Ian, by the way, directed Oh! What A Lovely War in September 1972 in Newcastle at what is now the home of Northern Stage. “The late Freddie Jones, who was rehearsing Peer Gynt at the time, used to sneak in every night to watch my ending, which he found profoundly moving,” he recalls.

Pick Me Up Theatre in Oh! What A Lovely War, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, March 31 to April 8, 7.30pm, except April 2 and 3; 2.30pm, April 1, 2 and 8. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

York actor Ian Giles’s paternal grandfather, Sergeant William Giles, with men of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry on Christmas Day 1915 at Fleurbaix, near Béthune

Did you know?

MARLENA Kellie played Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar in her debut for York Musical Theatre Company at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, in November 2019.

Here’s Jonny Holbek, adding directing and sketch comedy to his theatrical portfolio

Jonny Holbek: Actor, director, sketch comedy performer

YORK actor Jonny Holbek is stepping out of the ranks to co-direct Pick Me Up Theatre’s 60th anniversary production of Oh! What A Lovely War.

Last seen on stage as the emotionally damaged Tobias Ragg in York Light Opera Company’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street at York Theatre Royal in February and early March, he is working alongside artistic director Robert Readman at Theatre@41, Monkgate.

“I’ve not done much directing before,” he says. “I directed a concert/show for York Light, A Night With The Light, at Friargate Theatre in June last year and also did some assistant directing for Nik Briggs for York Stage Musicals’ The Flint Street Nativity in 2019.

“This time it’s in between assistant directing and directing. It’s co-directing, which is the toughest form of directing in terms of presenting a coherent production.”

How has the partnership worked out with Robert? “I missed some of the early rehearsals because of doing Sweeney Todd, with Robert doing a lot of the early blocking. Then we worked on scenes in separate rooms, and for the last two weeks it’s been entirely me, while Robert has been busy building the set.”

The collaboration emerged through Jonny expressing an interest in co-directing. “Robert suggested working on Oh! What A Lovely War, a piece that I didn’t know, but I know very well now,” he says.

“I’m really glad I said yes. What a great show it is. I’m so pleased to get to know its full cycle, its humour and its darkness.”

Devised and premiered by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London in 1963 before being turned into a film by Richard Attenborough in 1969, this satirical chronicle of the Great War is told through music-hall songs, hymns with rewritten verses and vignettes in the form of a seaside Pierrot entertainment, accompanied by statistics of the growing body count on the war front.

Jonny Holbek, fourth from right, leading the singing in God, That’s Good! in York Light Opera Company’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street at York Theatre Royal

“The first thing to say is that so many people died absolutely needlessly, and this show gives us the chance to explore that situation and find the absurd comedy in it, or in this case the careful juxtaposition of comedy and the horror of war,” says Jonny.

“One minute, the audience will be laughing at something; the next, they will be bulldozed by a harrowing image, a shocking fact – and when you make them feel an emotion, they feel it even more.

“The songs have a powerful impact too. A lot of the audience will know most of them, certainly the music-hall ones that provide the sense of pride and excitement the soldiers would have been feeling at first. That gives the show its energy, and then the other side of warfare comes through: the wistful songs that become gut-wrenchingly haunting.”

Contrasting directing with acting, Jonny says: “Firstly, they’re obviously very different disciplines, although they do overlap. In terms of performance, in both roles, you look for the comedy, the drama, and the nuances in the piece.

“Directing, I find it more rewarding helping others to find and highlight the various levels of light and dark to keep the audience interested; whether a scene needs to be reined in or played bolder.

“You also have that tricky balancing act of trying to encourage the best performances, without causing stress or knocking morale.”

Jonny’s daytimes find him working for the Rural Payments Agency, part of DEFRA. By night, he is a regular on the York stage, adding another string to his bow with The Dead Ducks, the sketch comedy troupe he has joined, made up mostly of University of York post-grads, such as Tommy Harris and Eloise Ward.

“We do little shows every few weeks,” he says. “The last one was in a big lecture room at the university, and we’ve also played The Den at Micklegate Social. This summer we’ll be playing the Edinburgh Fringe at one of ‘theSpace’ venues. No show title yet.”

Summing up his love of performing (and directing too), Jonny says: “It’s the camaraderie you build, putting together something in such a tight time frame. I haven’t found anything like it outside the arts. That buzz.”

Imgine if Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel had formed a double act…cue Told By An Idiot letting their imagination run free

Danielle Bird’s Charlie Chaplin, front, being lifted by Jerone Marsh-Reid’s Stan Laurel in a scene from Charlie & Stan with fellow cast members Sara Alexander (Charlie’s Mum and show pianist) and Nick Haverson (Fred Karno and show drummer). Picture: Matt Crockett

CHARLIE Chaplin and Stan Laurel could have been the greatest comedy double act that nearly was, and now they are in Told By An Idiot’s fantasia Charlie & Stan.

On tour from February 7 to March 4 after playing the 47th London International Mime Festival in a run at Wilton’s Music Hall, writer-director Paul Hunter’s silent comedy visits York Theatre Royal from February 14 to 18 in a poignant celebration of two Englishmen who changed the world of comedy

First told by Told By An Idiot in 2019, then revived by producer David Pugh for social-distanced performances and a run outdoors at Cornwall’s Minack Theatre under pandemic restrictions, Hunter’s “trueish” piece of magical storytelling returns in 2023 with its intertwining of real-life events with a fantastical reimagining of Chaplin and Laurel’s two years spent touring together before either became famous.

“The initial starting point was a friend of the company bringing us the idea of telling the story of the then unknown Charlie and Stan setting sail for New York in 1910 as part of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe, sharing a cabin and travelling around North America for 18 months with Stan as Charlie’s understudy,” says Paul, whose revival kickstarts Told By An Idiot’s 30th anniversary year.

“Stan got homesick and came home; Charlie received his invitation to go to Hollywood and within five years became one of the most famous faces in the world.”

 To make Charlie & Stan, Paul created a detailed storyboard structure and then fleshed out the scenarios with the actors, just as with Chaplin would eschew a script in favour of thinking, “the only thing I want to do is make something in a particular place” and then work from there.

Told By An Idiot writer-director Paul Hunter

“I knew I didn’t want to have mime or be experimental or avant-garde, but just tell the story without words but with the help of props and a jazz piano score by Zoe Rahman [played live by Sara Alexander] in a very captivating 85 minutes straight through to mirror the length of Chaplin’s films such as The Gold Rush.”

Paul may “play fast and loose with the facts” in his non-verbal, highly physical show but he did investigate into why a partnership failed to materialise. “Chaplin never mentioned Laurel even once in his autobiography, whereas Stan talked about Charlie, about him being our greatest comedian, until his dying day,” he says.

“Maybe this was the greatest double act that never was, but Chaplin was never going to share the spotlight with anyone, after his horrendous childhood. Maybe he was also jealous of Laurel because he was so talented too. Like when Stan had to go out on stage on his own when Karno refused to increase Charlie’s pay – and there was Charlie, sitting watching him from the fourth row!

“Ultimately, Laurel found his soul mate in Oliver Hardy, whereas Chaplin was a complete one-off, not only an extraordinary performer but also there’s an argument to say he was one of the greatest film directors, working in the dark with new skills as filmmaking changed.”

Paul’s show is based on fact, but “we refer to it as a true fantasy, where setting sail for New York leads us into the world of imagination with flash-forwards to Stan bumping into his future comedy partner and Charlie’s Little Tramp character evolving,” he says.

“We made a very conscious decision that all scenes should be completely inventions of our own, rather than taken from any film – and I love how we’ve been able to hoodwink people into thinking they are movie scenes!”

Setting sail for America: Jerone Marsh-Reid’s Stan Laurel, left, and Danielle Bird’s Charlie Chaplin. Picture: Matt Crockett

Chaplin was 21, Laurel a little younger, when they headed to America. “It’s a big thing, particularly for our two performers, that we wanted to cast them close to the ages that Charlie and Stan would have been,” says Paul.

“Danielle Bird (Charlie) and Jerone Marsh-Reid (Stan), who did the last tour too, are both in their early 20s. If cinema is a palace of dreams, then theatre is its own world of make-believe, and that’s reflected in the casting.

“When I was absorbed in the world of Chaplin, I was fascinated by his movement: he could have been a ballet dancer. Nijinsky even asked him where he trained as a dancer, but he didn’t, but Charlie had this feminine grace, which opened it up to a woman playing the role.

“At times the audience just see Chaplin and forget Dani is a woman. Every night Chaplin has to get a woman out of the audience to swim – and I think it would be more difficult if a man were playing him. There would  be more reluctance to go on stage but they trust a woman and that allows us to go further.”

Likewise, when picking Jerone for Stan, Paul says: “He’s mixed race, from Stafford, and again I thought there’s no point finding someone who can do an impression of Stan Laurel, but they had to capture the spirit.

“He’s being played by an actor who never thought he’d even be seen for the chance to play Stan, but that’s the nature of theatre: a world of imagination, rather than filling in the gaps for the audience, which makes the audience feel smarter – and all our work loves to do that!”

Told By An Idiot in Charlie & Stan, York Theatre Royal, February 14 to 18, 7.30pm plus 2pm, Thursday and 2.30pm, Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

Creating a world of imgination: Told By An Idiot actors Jerone Marsh-Reid’s Stan Laurel, left, and Danielle Bird’s Charlie Chaplin in Paul Hunter’s “true fantasy” Charlie & Stan. Picture: Matt Crockett