Of all theatrical forms Revue is the most difficult to define. What it should be is, or unfortunately was, a light hearted review of contemporary foibles and follies consisting of sketches, songs and dancing. The French comes from the word ‘revoir’ – to see again, and, therefore, it is retrospective. Gerald Bordman, one of America’s leading theatrical historians, cites in his volume ‘American Musical Revue’ (Oxford Press) that there are two requisites for revue, a sense of balance and a sense of purpose. This studied view indicates that when the balance between the contents of sketch, songs and dancing go out of kilt, the purpose, that is to entertain, gets lost. After this it is either no longer a revue or is a failure.
Revue, in the English form, sprang to life in London in 1912. It was a happy marriage of external origins mixed with internal new ideas. Its title bore homage to the trunk of its family tree, the French revue, but it was homage in name only. Strong branches had already grown at home and in the United States where by 1912 the Ziegfeld Follies were firmly entrenched and breeding copyists and experimentalists.
English revue was and is the product of various entertainments, social and regulatory forms. Entertainment forms such as pantomime, itself a direct descendent of the Italian, was the British voice of comment at Christmas time and itself making any French style revue an impractical end of year venture. Early attempts, therefore, went to the next most important Christian event of the year – Easter.
In Southampton the Empire became a popular venue for revue. Its second programme which opened on January 7th 1929 was a brand new revue that would take the West End by storm – Gracie Fields in The Show’s The Thing. It returned for the week of May 27th, 1929 immediately ahead its opening at London”s Victoria Palace and then again on the 3rd March 1930 returning directly from London’s Winter Gardens to Southampton’s Empire with Gracie leading the company for its third visit to the City. In 1930 Gracie Fields made her New York debut in September at the Palace where she played for two weeks to excellent notices and for Christmas, she returned to the Southampton Empire to star in an eight day run of This Week Of Grace which opened on December 26th. Gracie’s final revue for Archie Pitt was Walk this Way which opened at Southampton Empire on 2nd November 1931 before moving to the Winter Garden Theatre, London, on 17th December 1931. Archie Pitt’s revues would continue to entertain Southampton audiences but without Gracie Fields they were destined to play the Palace and Hippodrome. In fact “Walk This Way” would mark the beginning of the demise of Revue and for the Empire it was notably the last time that Revue would be seen at the theatre. However, what a period it had been, in the three years that the Empire had been operating some of the West End’s biggest revues had graced the stage.
Theatre as an art form is always attempting to break away from the accepted to attempt something new. This can be seen in revue’s formative years in the nineteenth century and early twentieth when descriptions of shows themselves show theatrical explorations. The various kinds of extravaganzas: operatic, fairy, burlesque, spectacular, musical and political; then there were the spectacles, vaudevilles, travesties and musical comedy. In an attempt to describe changing entertainment fashions mistakes were made and revusical comedy would aptly describe many of these interbred / hybrid entertainments.
An enduring form of entertainment that pre-dated Revue and still survives today is Variety which grew out of the Music Halls of the 19th century.
The live entertainment style known as music hall in the United Kingdom and vaudeville in the United States can be considered a direct predecessor of the “variety show” format.[ Variety in the UK evolved in theatres and music halls, and later in Working Men’s Clubs. British performers who honed their skills in music hall sketches include Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, George Formby, Gracie Fields, Dan Leno, Gertrude Lawrence and Marie Lloyd.[ Most of the early top performers on British television and radio did an apprenticeship either in stage variety, or during World War II in Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). In the UK, the ultimate accolade for a variety artist for decades was to be asked to do the annual Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium theatre, in front of the monarch. Later known as the Royal Variety Performance (from 1919), it continues today. In the 1940s, Stan Laurel revisited his music hall days when he performed at the Royal Variety show.[
In the United States, former vaudeville performers such as the Marx Brothers, George Burns and Gracie Allen, W. C. Fields, and Jack Benny honed their skills in the Borscht Belt before moving to talkies, to radio shows, and then to television shows, including variety shows.
In Southampton the Empire gave the town the opportunity to see the biggest stars. It started in 1929 when Britain’s top band leader, Jack Hylton brought his band to the Empire for the week of 15th April. So successful was this engagement that he was back in 1930 for the week of 9th June and again for the week of 5th January in 1931. The Two Rascals and Neil McKay headlined for the week of 22nd July 1929. The following week the Debroy Somers Band played their first dates at the theatre. 1930 saw more Variety with Nervo & Knox and The USA Four (26th May to 30th); The Houston Sisters (30th June to 5th July); Talbot O’Farrell, who was born in the North Of England but was billed as ‘the greatest Irish entertainer of all time’ played the week of 7th July. In September the great American bass singer and actor, Paul Robeson performed for the week of 22nd. For the week of the 24th November, Harry Lauder topped the bill. Typically, these programmes included a supporting company to augment the ‘variety’ of the show.