We are amused

Take a dose of Victorian snobbery, add some innuendo and what have you got? A night at the Players' with Rachel Halliburton
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The Independent Culture
Toasting Queen Victoria with a pint of Fosters seemed to sum up the essence of last Friday evening. There was solemnity on the one hand, as a white bearded man with a monocle led the audience in its response "To her great and glorious majesty, Queen Victoria, God bless her". And there was vulgarity on the other, as the same monocled individual apologised that the sausages served in the interval would be rather small "owing to the cold weather".

The year is 1899. The place: underneath the arches by Charing Cross. And for the non cognoscenti, the club is the Players' Theatre, an institution in which Victorian snobbery, music hall and generous helpings of innuendo create an evening to fascinate the curious, and enthral the luvvies.

"I'm Mr Dominic Le Foe," continues the chairman of the evening, "as British as the flag." He holds out a miserable flailing version of the Union Jack, and adds "A bit battered and a bit bent. But then that is the club." If anyone is left in doubt as to the general campness of the evening, this is speedily dispelled. Gazing at the dark wooden cherubs that support the green lights on stage, the audience joins in to a rousing chorus of the theatre's anthem "Oh! The Fairies".

The Players' Theatre was founded in 1936, in answer to the now-dated demand for music hall. Curiously, it is the club's insistence on its datedness that has formed the foundation of its success. During the run of its traditional Victorian pantomimes - the theatre's only alternative to music hall - the actors play frequently to full houses. And in the late-license bar that runs upstairs, regulars such as Tony Slattery can be seen.

To enjoy the Players' Theatre, you should leave behind your sceptical 1990s mentality or you'll have a difficult evening. What surprised me when I talked to the people there, was the amount of affection and loyalty the place inspired. One woman was revisiting it after 20 years, because her mother had performed there. Mr Le Foe himself, although he has pursued a number of other professions, including financial journalism, told me he became chairman because "when I saw The Players', I realised it was my spiritual home".

In the theatre itself, he is without doubt the highlight of the evening. His deliberately antiquated wit and sarcasm propel along a show which could otherwise hold a more limited appeal. Talking of an audience's reaction to a "shocking" act, he divulges: "One of our Catholic members reached for her beads. The Church of England people nudged each other and asked what page we were on."

Mark Mason, the pianist who accompanies the musical acts, doubles up valiantly as Mr Le Foe's stooge. The oom-pah-pah rhythms and give-it-a- bit-of-welly enthusiasm of the songs he plays stir the audience to follow the lyrics. On stage, men in various brands of tartan and women dressed in a way that was fashionable when the Bronts last hit the King's Road give their performances. The sugar-sweet lyrics of the songs they sing may seem soured by strong doses of chauvinism and racism. But if you've gone to the Players' Theatre to be politically correct, then you haven't got the point.

The Players' Theatre, The Arches,Villiers St, WC2 (0171-839 1134)

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