Wild Laughter is an original performance piece devised by Sidelong Glance. It tells the story of our paternal great-grandfather, the stage clown and patter baritone Albert James.
Born Albert Charles Baker in 1857, he was indentured to a stationers near London’s Gough Square where Dr Johnson once lived. Evidently not satisfied by the prospect of this life, he changed his name and went in search of work in the capital’s theatres. Albert James’ career as an actor began in London in the 1870s, and as a member of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company he worked directly with W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. He appeared in principal roles in tours across England, Europe, North America and South Africa. After his performing career ended, Albert became stage manager of the D’Oyly Carte at the Savoy. Not long before his death, he married Annie Pike, D’Oyly Carte wardrobe mistress. On Christmas Eve 1908, when Albert was 56, his only child – our grandfather, Noel – was born. Just before Christmas 1913, Albert died. He is buried with Annie somewhere in Streatham Cemetery.
Albert is a relatively recent discovery. Our father left in 1993, when we were nine and five. We knew that there was something unusual and exciting about the life of his grandfather, and we knew this from things that our mother had held back, carefully preserved in the attic of our childhood home in Devon. While studying at Gilbert’s alma mater, King’s College London, and developing her own profile as a performer, Ellie started to further research Albert’s story. She first encountered Melvyn Tarran’s extraordinary efforts to preserve the history of the D’Oyly Carte in 2010, just weeks before she moved to America. Mr Tarran’s passion for the world of Gilbert and Sullivan has not waned in 50 years and he shared it with the public for almost 30 years in a remarkable collection exhibited in the gatehouse of a stately home in East Sussex.
Albert played a significant part in this display. Scrap books, posters and photographs; scene plots, annotated scores and souvenirs from grateful casts; letters to Rupert D’Oyly Carte about chorus girls’ stockings and affections to our infant grandfather on Savoy Theatre headed notepaper had been passed down to our father, but they were all sold to Mr Tarran sometime in the 1990s. In its entirety the collection comprises nearly 1,000 items of costume, memorabilia and ephemera charting the history of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and its reach throughout London society. Many of the items are unique. Highlights on show included pieces belonging or relating to Richard, Helen, and Rupert D’Oyly Carte, George and Weedon Grossmith, Jessie Rose, Ellen Terry, and Oscar Wilde. Others are more common, but attest to the mass popularity of and fondness for the work produced by the D’Oyly Carte and Gilbert and Sullivan. There are collectible photograph cards of the stars, Capo-Di-Monte figures, china sets and biscuit tins.
As part of our linked efforts to explore this family connection and secure a permanent home for Mr Tarran’s collection we have devised the performance Wild Laughter, a biography in collage for the stage. Wild Laughter draws a number of moods and influences together around the figure of the clown we call Albert. The playtext of Wild Laughter is a collage of different sources: as well as our own original writing, we draw fools and clowns from literature, film and journalism. This material spans some five hundred years: Shakespeare’s Feste, Berowne and Lear appear alongside Beckett’s O, Clov and Vladimir; James Joyce’s Bloom takes his place at Angela Carter’s circus; Charles Dickens is seen in the company of Charlie Chaplin.
Our aim in telling our great-grandfather’s story is to recover and protect his world. And in telling his story, we cannot help but tell parts of our own.