The Likes of Her was first performed on 15th Agust, 1923 at the St. Martin’s Theatre, London, and it’s the play that the 1931 Gracie Fields film Sally in our Alley was based on.
The Likes of Her is not a musical, and has a darker tone than the film. It is set “during demobilisation after the Great War” – so a couple of years before the performance. Alfred talks about the War, and about Sally (in phonetic spelling to show that he’s a Cockney):
You see it art there. You and me torking, Mr Bray. P’r’aps you’re my bruvver – anyway you’re my best pal. Along comes a big un. Misses me, ‘its you. There you are. Talking to me ‘arf a minute ago, and there’s your ‘ead lying over there now, and p’r’aps your feet somewhere else. I lights a fag, and never gives you another thort. What use are you to me, then? You’re finished. You’re no furver blinking use… And ‘ere’s a fine girl, Gawd blimey, all this time fretting about what’s only a man after all. As if there weren’t no more men in the world.
Sally frets because she has been told various stories about George Miles, but none of them ring true. She says, “They say George is missing, believed dead. Well, I know ‘e ain’t. If he was dead, I’d know it ‘ere.”
The point of the play is to show her instinct justified, and to show Sally and George as an exemplary couple in time of war. Like Chaucer’s patient Griselde, she suffers humiliatiuons and temptations, but stays virtuous and loyal.
George is a more interesting character than in the film. Alf gives a version of what happened to him:
Alfred: He’s got one leg left, here. This arm is blowed away at the shoulder. He’s got just a little sight in one eye, and that must go in time. And – and- something worse than that, Sally.
Sally (horrified): What?
Alfred: It ain’t mine to talk about, but his fice is all gorn like.
Sally finds this difficult to take, but declares:
If a chap was good enough when he was strong and hearty (She is really upset) is there a girl’d turn him darn? A feller who left her fine and strong. It’d break his ‘eart if she turned from ‘im. She – couldn’t.
The fear of rejection is what has kept George away, even though he has recovered from his wounds well enough to return to the war, get a commission and be promoted to Colonel. This rise in status may not seem realistic, but provides another possible obstacle in the path of their love. Will he now be too good for her? Sally remembers how he gained a scholarship to grammar school when young, but always took his collar off when he came home, so as not to swank in front of the others. After school he had joined (and developed) his father’s coster business.
When George finally enters the action of the play (He had been kept a mystery from the audience for the first two acts; the film does it differently) his appearance is reassuring: “a tall bronzed and seemingly intact man of thirty-five. He is dressed in a coster’s rig of ‘pearlies’, bell-bottom trousers and a twisted yellow handkerchief round his neck.” His face and voice are so different that Sally does not immediately recognise him.
So – not only patched up brilliantly by the surgeons, but deliberately dressing in a way that shows he wants to be back in touch with his roots, despite being a Colonel. This links the text with others of the post-war period that dealt with the issue of the officer who has been promoted out of his class – The Mountebank, A Temporary Gentleman, The Kingdom Round the Corner, and so on.
I think there is a subtext in the play about sex – one that couldn’t be made explicit because of the Lord Chamberlain. Have George’s injuries emasculated him? Is that why he has considered himself not fit to be a husband to Sally?
Female sexuality is dealt with by giving Sally a foil in the character of Florrie. She is a fifteen-year-old who has been bullied by her father, and turned into a liar and thief. She is a character with no control, and her emotions lead her into impulsive and destructive lies. Sally, by contrast, has control, and is the one character who, by tough love, can tame Florrie. There is a terrific scene (copied exactly in the film) where she confronts Florrie’s destructiveness, daring her to smash all the china in the room they share, until Florrie has worked through her aggression and is willing to face (and tell) the truth.
So Florrie is there to show the emotions that Sally has kept under control. At the end, of course, she gets her man – or what is left of him:
Sally: Oh, my George.
Miles: I’m not fit for the likes of you, Sal.
Sally: The likes of me! It’s the likes of you what matters. Which is the arm you can put round me?
She’s settling for half a cuddle, but he’s still a better man than the others we have seen in the play, who have tried in various devious ways to get Sally for themselves.
Not a great play by any means, but a really interesting document about what people wanted to believe about themselves in 1923.