From music hall to modern comedy: One woman on a mission to make London laugh

Welsh comedienne Emily Davis is on a mission to make London laugh with a one-woman show in the grand tradition of musical comedy.

Written with her love of cabaret at its heart, Miss Davis is part of the movement bringing variety back to everyday London entertainment.

We might be familiar with catchy, irreverent tunes like I do like to be beside the seaside and How much is that doggy in the window, but these songs were once as integral to working-class London life as pie and mash.

Many classic London tunes originated in the late 1800s and early 1900s as part of the music hall scene that threw a bawdy and raucous slant on ordinary working lives.

Entertainers offered a mix of comedy and music as salve to the grinding poverty faced by the working class and were as feted and cosseted as any modern day celebrity.

As the Great War gripped the capital they supported the war effort, churning our belters like It’s a Long Way to Tipperary to boost morale.

But as death toll rose the songs took on a starker, more satirical turn, most noted in Oh! It’s a lovely war, but however maudlin music hall became it still held popular sentiment at its heart.

Music hall traditions eventually gave way to rock ’n’ roll, becoming the preserve of novelty acts and the occasional Royal Variety Performance.

Its performers, confined to holiday parks and end of pier revues, struggled along until the 80s when a fresh take on the old traditions emerged – the musical comedian.

Stars like Miss Davis’ hero Victoria Wood became synonymous with cheeky wit wrapped up in a catchy sing-along-song.

Miss Davis’ own inspirations, the legendary trio Fascinating Aida, hold their roots in musical comedy, satire and storytelling, in very much the old music hall traditions.

Despite their three decades in the industry, the relative newcomer said: “If I could be a tenth of the performers they are, I would be happy with my work”.

A decade-long resurgence in the popularity of burlesque, the saucier, snarkier cousin of main-stream stripping, has allowed comedians and cabaret artists to enjoy a new audience in bars and clubs across the capital.

While the industry isn’t quite back to the days of the sell-out music hall, performers like Miss Davis are confident that cabaret style shows are enjoying a renaissance in the city right now.

The 31-year-old, who is based in Clapham, began her career just 18 months ago after spending two weeks being trained by cabaret legend Paul L Martin.

Emily had performed her whole life but had never found her musical feet, instead drifting into life as a freelance marketing consultant.

It was during this two week training course that she realised that the coupling of humour and music offered her a chance to enjoy a blend of performing that she felt suited her style.

Since then she has gone on to create her own one-woman show, Emily D Sings, talking about her life in London through the lens of her Pembrokeshire upbringing.

When asked what attracted her to such a traditional style of comedy, she said: “The shows are very intimate. I am not looking to fill 1,000-seater venues, this sort of act needs intimacy.

“In a 90 minute show I will do around 10-15 mainly original songs but a lot of my act is spent creating conversation and interaction with the audience. Every show is completely different.”

Emily believes that the cabaret and musical comedy circuit offers an ideal platform for female performers.

Here lies an interesting parallel with the original music-hall performances, where female stars were the only ones to often command more per show then men.

She said: “I just don’t feel a gender divide in cabaret, which is a lot to do with it having its roots in Burlesque.

“This might be down to being a one-woman-show but the only gig I can remember doing where I felt any different was a straight ‘comedy’ show, where I was the only woman.”

Of course, it isn’t all plain sailing, Emily and other musical performers are still establishing their acts and are a long way from the celebrity of the early 1900s, but she is confident that the popularity of the art-form will only increase.

Emily thinks that as Londoners work harder and harder for their money, leisure time has taken on much more significance.

She said: “All you want after a hard day at work is to enjoy yourself and that’s the point of this sort of act, to have a really good time and be made to smile.”

Emily Davis will perform at The Pheasantry on Kings Road, South Kensington, on February 23.

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