Albert James at the Animal Fair

Please find below a post by Rosie and Ellie Lavan about their play Wild Laughter, which was performed as an OCLW event on the 11th of November.

Albert James at the Animal Fair

We think of Wild Laughter very much as a Christmas story. Our great grandfather Albert James was, after all, the clown who died on Christmas Eve. For us, it’s that fact more than any other that touches his biography with a kind of magic.

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: from the trunk in which he had shipped his possessions around the world while touring as a principal actor and stage manager of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company; from the clasp of an opera cloak he once sported; from a black leather Aspreys wallet stamped in gold with the initials A.J.

Later, we found that Albert had another guardian, Mr Melvyn Tarran. An avid collector of Gilbert and Sullivan memorabilia, Mr Tarran made our great grandfather’s world even more real for us in the things he owns: in articles which claim Albert was better than George Grossmith in the role of Koko; in 10-foot high publicity posters displaying Albert in pastel as the star of the show; in letters dated December 1911 to our infant grandfather Noel Albert Charles James days before his third birthday on Christmas Eve – letters whose affections on reflection are so poignant, since we read them in the knowledge that Noel and his mother Annie would lose Albert two years later on that very same day.

We continue to recover Albert’s extraordinary biography in public records and published reviews. We now know that he is buried with Annie somewhere in Streatham Cemetery; that he lived diagonally across Clapham Common from where our mother was born half a century later; and only this week, after mounting the exhibition ‘A Clown of Real Life: the Performance Worlds of Albert James’ at the English Faculty Library in Cambridge, we were contacted by a visitor who had discovered from reviews that Albert had played before US President Benjamin Harrison in 1892. We treasure these odd fragments of an exceptional life as they are gifted to us, reassembling them in Wild Laughter.

We’ve now performed Wild Laughter at four locations across Oxford and Cambridge. It’s a work that responds to the conditions of performance; it’s very much a living thing. We’ve coloured black box studios and adapted blank board rooms with Albert’s animations, but the Haldane Room setting will always be set apart from those other places. We felt that those beautiful, lofty winged animals and their companion angel carried the piece to a rather strange and ethereal place. Something of our wonder in their magic is clear from the alert and acute photographs taken that evening by Santhy Balachandran. In Albert’s company, we met those creatures on Remembrance Day, and we shall certainly remember them along with him.


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