The Hokey Cokey Man

“The Hokey Cokey Man”
Play with music by Alan Balfour

Jenny / Eileen – Anna Acton
Alan / Abraham / Journalist / Jimmy – Michael Gilroy
Al Tabor – James Doherty
Jack – Lee Ormsby
Victoria – Issy van Randwyck

Ninon Jerome – Director
Jason Moore – Assistant Director
Lotte Collett – Designer
David W. Kidd – Lighting Designer


Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 22 May, 2009
Venue: New End Theatre, Hampstead, London NW3

Al Tabor (1898-1983), violinist and bandleader, a minor player in the history of British popular music, was born in London as Alfred Taboriwsky – his parents had fled the Russian pogroms and settled in the East End. Alfred turned out to be a prodigy, having taken up the violin at age four. He later won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music, and from the late 1920s through the 1940s he became a popular bandleader in England and the US. In 1928 he was the musical director of the Hammersmith and Birmingham Palais de Danse. In Hammersmith his group was The New Dixie Band. His main band recorded a few numbers until he moved on to Murray’s Club in Soho in 1929. He played at King George’s silver jubilee and during the Second World War worked at the Bagatelle Club where the young Princess Elizabeth used to go. He carried on until the early 1960s and then became employed by the BBC, distributing royalties for the music played by the Corporation. He retired in the late 1960s.

His main claim to everlasting fame occurred in 1940 when he introduced a song called ‘The Hokey Cokey’ (or originally Hokey Pokey) as something that would cheer up the British people living through the horrors of the Blitz. It was based on the lines of ‘Under the spreading chestnut tree’ – another song performed with actions. It caught on rather like the Conga and people in dance halls everywhere were singing: “You put your left leg in, you put your left leg out / You put your left leg in and you shake it all about / You do the Hokey Cokey and you turn around, / That’s what it’s all about…”. Amazingly it continued to be popular even after the war and even became the subject of controversy earlier this year (2009) when Scottish football fans were prevented from singing it at matches because it supposedly had anti-Catholic sentiments. The title ‘Hokey Cokey’ was derived from ‘hokey pokey’, the cry that Italian ice-cream-sellers used to make: “Hokey pokey, penny a lump / Have a lick and make you jump.”

However, some bright spark managed to trace it back to ‘hocus pocus’, the chant of magicians, which in turn was a distortion of “hoc est en im corpus meum” (this is my body), the Latin words of the consecration of the host at the Eucharist, the point at which Catholics believe that transubstantiation takes place. It was thought that chanting ‘hocus pocus’ was a way of ridiculing the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Even an Anglican Canon thought that the ‘hokey pokey’ dance was taken from the Latin mass. This in turn led a Scottish politician to recommend criminal charges against anyone who used the song to taunt Roman Catholics, hence the move to stop it being sung at Scottish football matches. In the event last year both Glasgow teams, Celtic and Rangers, were encouraged to sing it together.

All of which is a long way from Al Tabor’s intent to keep the wartime British population happy! The play “The Hokey Cokey Man” is written by Tabor’s grandson, Alan Balfour, who claims his grandfather was neither a Latin scholar nor a bigot. “My grandfather would have thought this was totally absurd. It was never meant to be a dig at anybody, it was meant to inspire people to express themselves physically and celebrate living. It was to cheer everybody up, not just Protestants or Jews or whoever.” The play concentrates more on the man than the music. He was, according to his grandson, something of a charmer with the ladies and had a difficult task keeping his mistress of eighteen years from his wife and his daughter, from whom he eventually became estranged. He was obviously a talented and popular musician in his day but perhaps without ‘Hokey Cokey’ he might now be totally forgotten, particularly as he only made a few recordings.

With the author’s provenance the play seems authentic enough and Balfour doesn’t skimp on the details of his grandfather’s darker side. He didn’t treat his women particularly well but he did appear to enjoy his work. He probably didn’t have much business sense and seems to have let his music publisher cream-off most of the profits from the sheet-music sales of ‘Hokey Cokey’. He wondered what all the fuss was about over his simple little tune. “After all”, he says, “it’s not exactly the Moonlight Sonata”, although it might have the same longevity.

James Doherty gives a strong performance as Al, telling his story in flashback and showing why women might have been smitten by his exciting ‘showbiz’ lifestyle. Anna Acton plays both his long-suffering wife Jenny and their daughter Eileen with conviction, although both women seemed not to have fully appreciated the enigma that was Al Tabor. He may have had familial feelings for them but he also ignored them, in order to be with his mistress Victoria, played with a touch of glamour and not a little effervescence by Issy van Randwyck. Difficult and driven, Al was more of a man’s man who really didn’t understand women and wouldn’t be ruled by them, so that even Victoria gave up on him. His cavalier and heartless treatment of all his women is, however, reflected in the way he felt about his music. He wasn’t that fond of lyrics but was passionate about melody and what it represented, harmony, something sorely missing in his private life.

Director Ninon Jerome evokes the wartime years well and Lotte Collett’s designs conjure up a bygone era with affection. However, much more could have been made of the ‘Hokey Cokey’ song itself which almost seems to pass unnoticed. It might not mean much to today’s (younger) audiences, so a demonstration of why it survives would certainly be in order. Just think what fun Busby Berkeley could have had with it…

  • The Hokey Cokey Man is at New End Theatre, 27 New End, Hampstead, London NW3 until Sunday 21 June 2009
  • Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., matinees Saturday and Sunday at 3.30
  • Tickets 0870 033 2733
  • New End Theatre

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