7th October 1929 – MADAME PLAYS NAP
On the stage – for six days – MADAME PLAYS NAP – EMPIRE – This visit to Southampton was part of a seventeen week tour ahead of opening at London’s New Theatre on 17th December. Sybil Thorndike and the producer Lewis Casson starred in MADAME PLAYS NAP. As usual Sybil fulfilled her customary off-stage itinerary, she was certainly treated royally. She opened bazaars, visited newspaper offices and hospitals, spoke at luncheon clubs and society meetings. She found ways of praising the character of each City. Where possible she emphasised he local connections and in Southampton she recalled her holidays here as a child and her activities as an amateur actress. But sometimes she strained to find suitable material: ‘My hairdresser is always talking about Portsmouth’ she told one Southampton gathering. The play was a light insubstantial piece, set in Napoleonic times – a dash of fiction, a dash of history and you have a legend.
14th October 1929 – THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT
On the stage – for six days – THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT – EMPIRE – Cicely Courtenidge and Jack Hulbert not only performed together but were a married couple. They first appeared together in a revue called Ring Up, but it was not until 1923 that their stage partnership began to take off, with successes like Little Revue Starts at Nine O’Clock (1923), By the time that The House That Jack Built arrived in Southampton, ahead of its West End opening, they were huge stars. The musical revue had lyrics by Donovan Parsons & Douglas Furber, music by Ivor Novello, Vivian Ellis, Arthur Shwartz and Sydney Baynes.
The House That Jack Built was not built on startling originality, but upon the wide confines of what the Hulberts did best; it succeeded because of it. Jack Hulberts original concept included an elaborate first act closing scene among ‘The Ruins of Pompeii’. It had a transformation scene of before and after the volcano and a Bacchanal ballet depicting the turmoil. What it did not have was a good story line. The main characters were Antony and Cleopatra, played by the leads, who had some rather weak patter that neither built nor was funny. The outcome was that the whole scene disappeared before the show reached London. Part of the set remained and became a much simpler garden.
While one of the ideas had been to destroy a house on stage the opening scene depicted the building of a house. The show’s ‘Young Ladies’ (the Cochran description did not remain long and they soon became ‘The Builders’) formed a charming body of constructionists who laid the foundations and hosted the house warming. They also backed Ivor McLaren in the number ‘The house we’d built’.
The spectacle of the first act closer had been lost but there was still spectacle to be seen in ‘Tear Drops from Her Eyes are Pearls’, the second act opener, written by Donovan Parsons to the music of Ivor Novello. It was a Venetian tragedy played entirely in mime that took place in the Palace of a Doge of Venice in medieval times. The Doge had betrothed his ward to a man she had never met and she had to get rid of her lover whose life was threatened. To save his life she dismissed him and then killed herself, a fate she preferred rather than accept the unwanted suitor. Helen Burnell with her expressive waving arms and splendid dancing was the ward and Robert Naylor with his tenor voice the lover. He had the title song of the scene to sing.
In ‘The Dowager Fairy Queen’ it was Cicely Courtneidge’s turn to take centre stage. Supported by a band of sprites in a Fairy Glade she played an old Dowager Fairy Queen who could not manage her once popular high notes and hobbled painfully through dances that had made her once the greatest of dancers. It was a burlesque of an old style pantomime. Cicely’s performance, however, was quite remarkable. She was playing a very funny character but she played the part for sympathy and laughter was soon reduced to tears. As a complete change it was all out comedy in a Douglas Furber sketch, a sketch that was to become a firm favourite over the years. Originally it was called ‘It Happened in Harley Street’, later it was simply known as ‘Laughing Gas’. Cicely Courtneidge played a widow who, with her relatives and the family solicitor, went into hails of laughter while listening to her husband’s unfavourable will under the effects of gas given her by her dentist – the laughter was infectious throughout the theatre.
In ‘The Ever Open Door’ Cicely Courtneidge had another deep part. She played a matron and mother from Harringay (Sic) who had put up knickknacks to greet her flapper daughter back from a Clacton holiday. When daughter arrived it was with the surprise announcement that she was to get married in great haste. In a sad little scene the mother confessed how she hated the knickknacks she had put up and how she thought ‘things will be so quiet’. Her other roles included a talkative and finally disappointed post office worker in ‘And The Next’, and an elderly ‘glob-trotter’ with her husband in a song and burlesque dance number by Douglas Furber and Ivor Novello.
Helen Burnell was not over taxed with scenes; her talents were less than those of June who had played the equivalent role in Clowns in Clover. In the first act Miss Burnell had one solo, ‘My heart is saying’, which displayed her elegant stance, her blonde hair and her deep-toned voice. Other than her major role in the Venetian mime her only other featured spot was when she accompanied Jack Hulbert in ‘The thought never entered my head’. Irene Russell had far more to do. She was an attractive woman who was able to sing sweetly and dance beautifully. She was also an actress and she appeared in many of the sketches. Her best work was seen in a Night Club sequence when she imitated Jessie Matthews and Gracie Fields, and in ‘Butterfly at the Wheel’ playing an American girl who complained about a speedily smitten motorist in the form of Jack Hulbert.
Many topics were touched upon but none as cleverly as an original political speech performed by Jack Hulbert in song and dance written by Douglas Furber. A burlesque circus sequence had Harry Budd as a clown with his performing elephants and seals, which did not appear. Synchronisation in the ‘talkies’ and a visit behind the scenes of a broadcast were none too original subjects but were fun and made their point.
The House That Jack Built received excellent reviews and it seemed that neither Jack nor Cicely could do wrong in the eyes of the critics. However, in terms of length of run, it was not as successful as the Hulbert’s previous two shows. This was a sign of the times, for it was presented at a time when revue was at low ebb and for a short period it was the only revue running in London. Jack and Cicely should have been a very rich couple, but their business manager was less than capable, and they found themselves seriously in debt.
Sequences from the show were filmed for the motion picture revue Elstree Calling – an early attempt to make an English musical film.
21st October 1929 – ART & MRS. BOTTLE
On the stage – for six days – ART & MRS BOTTLE – came to the Empire as part of a short tour ahead of a season at London’s Criterion. It starred Irene Vanbrugh who had turned 57 and started her acting career some 40 years previously. Starring opposite her was 53 year old Robert Loraine who had introduced the George Bernard Shaw play Man and Superman to Broadway in 1905. The play by Ben Levy revolves around Mrs Celia Bottle (Irene Vanbrugh) who is besotted with an artist named Max Lightly (Robert Lorraine) and turned off by her bourgeois husband who installs drains.
28th October 1929 – THE STUDENT PRINCE
On the stage – for six days = THE STUDENT PRINCE – EMPIRE – is an operetta in four acts with music by Sigmund Romberg and book and lyrics by Dorothy Donnelly. It is based on Wilhelm Meyer-Förster’s play Old Heidelberg. The piece has elements of melodrama but lacks the swashbuckling style common to Romberg’s other works. The plot is mostly faithful to its source. It opened on December 2, 1924, at Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre on Broadway. The show was the most successful of Romberg’s works, running for 608 performances, the longest-running Broadway show of the 1920s. It was staged by J. C. Huffman. Even the classic Show Boat, the most enduring musical of the 1920s, did not play as long. The operetta contains the challenging tenor aria “The Serenade” (“Overhead the moon is beaming”). In London it opened at His Majesty’s Theatre with several of the original cast, including Ilsa Marvenga who starred opposite Allan Prior as Karl-Franz, it was poorly received as It was said to be “too German” and too close to the end of the Great War for London audiences and closed after three months and 96 performances. This tour followed and convinced producer Edward Laurillard that the show had been unlucky, and he would take it to the Piccadilly Theatre where it would open on 7 November 1929) with Donald Mather starring and a company of 100.
4th November 1929 – THE CO-OPTOMISTS
On the stage – for six days -THE CO-OPTOMISTS – The Revue “THE CO-OPTIMISTS” had been a tremendous hit in London and around the country for 9 years, each year updating its material and keeping it current, it reached the Empire on November 4th 1929. Stanley Holloway was the star of the show as he had been for each of the London outings. Their traditional opening was followed by their traditional mixture of songs, all so carefully chosen to show off the individual talents of the stars.
Davy Burnaby was the heartbeat of the troupe and set the songs rolling with a lively rendition of ‘Clocks’, Stanley Holloway and Elsa MacFarlane followed with the pretty ‘Down love’s lane’. The Co-Optimists intimate atmosphere stayed intact and the material was intelligent, witty, and tuneful. They had become an institution in a relatively short time. This production had taken a break from London’s Vaudeville Theatre where it had finished on Saturday to open at the Empire on the Monday before embarking on its short tour before returning to the West End for the Chrsitmas season.
11th November 1929 – FUNNY FACE
on the stage – for six days – FUNNY FACE – George and Ira Gershwin wrote the musical “FUNNY FACE” which opened at the Empire on 11th November, 1929. It had a successful run at the Princes in London from November 1928 with a transfer to the Winter Gardens. It was written for Fred Astaire and his sister Adele who led the show in London and Broadway. When the show moved out on tour the casting changed as Fred and Adele were contracted for another show about to open in the USA so the Astaires were replaced with Guy Fane and Renee Reel. It is a typical Broadway song and dance and comic interlude show. It tells the story of Jimmy Reeve who is the legal guardian of three pretty sisters, Dora, June and Frankie, whose prize belongings he keeps in his safe. June’s pearl necklace is locked in there, and so is Frankie’s diary, after having been confiscated by Jimmy. However, the diary contains very incriminating things, so Frankie convinces the aviator Peter Thurston to steal it from the safe. But somehow he manages to steal the pearls instead, setting off a merry chase that takes the cast to the Atlantic City pier. And to make matters even more complicated, two bumbling burglars, Herbert and Dugsie, also try to break into the safe and are swept along in the chase. At one point, they have a falling out, but Herbert is unable to shoot Dugsie as he has forgotten to get a shooting license.
18th November 1929 – TYPHOON
On the stage – for six days -TYPHOON – This revival of Laurence Irving’s English adaptation of Melchior Lengyel’s Typhoon played at the Empire ahead of a move into London’s new Duchess Theatre. Melchior Lengyel was a Hungarian writer, dramatist, and film screenwriter of Jewish heritage. He started his career as a journalist working first in Košice, then later in Budapest. He wrote his first play in 1908 and then in 1909, he became a worldwide success with the premiere of Taifun (Typhoon). It was adapted to the screen in the United States in 1914. This production had international star Dennis Nielson-Terry in the lead role and Mary Crew as his leading lady.
It tells the story of a diplomat ( Dennis Nielsen-Terry), on a mission to Paris, begins a love affair with chorus girl, Helene ( Mary Crew), who subsequently rejects her American fiance, Bernisky. When the Embassy discover the affair, they try to end it, but Helene refuses to stop visiting him. One night, during one of her visits, Bernisky comes to his apartment and, while Helene hides, rebukes her to her lover. After Bernisky leaves, Helene runs off, but he calls her back. Suddenly, she rejects and insults him to the point that he strangles her. He wants to confess his crime, but he must complete his work, and so his countrymen sacrifice a boy, who pleads guilty to the murder and eventually is executed. In the end, the diplomat also dies and his colleagues burn his valuable papers in order to protect their country.
25th November 1929 – VIRGINIA
On the stage – for six days – VIRGINIA – After its successful run at the Empire in May, VIRGINIA returned with a new leading lady due to the illness of Cora Goffin. For this visit the production starred Babbette O’Deal who came to prominence when she was given Emma Haig’s part in ‘The Girl Friend’ which immediately raised her to the rank of star. She was joined by another new member to the cast Carlito Ackroyd as Lady Compton. Leading man Arthur Riscoe continues as Nicholas Ninnijohn and he sweeps every city of the tour with laughter. It tells the story of unfortunate Virginia Hook who is forced by her father, the social-climbing Silas J. Hock, to accompany him to her name-state of Virginia where he wants her to marry the impecunious Earl of Hampton. Unknown to Silas, not only is Lord Hampton already married to an ex-actress, but Virginia herself has been secretly married to Nicholas Ninnijohn, Silas’s private secretary. Other characters involved include negro servants Sambo and Lizzie, Uncle New, and the accident-prone chauffeur, Caesar. The usual farcical shenanigans ensue, with the actions moving from grand hotels to cotton plantations, and eventually, of course, all is happily resolved.
2nd December 1929 – HER PAST
On the stage – for six days – HER PAST – The Empire opened a play, “Her Past”, ahead of an opening at London’s Prince Of Wales, starring Alice Delysia, a French actress and singer who made her career in English musical theatre. After performing in the chorus at the Moulin Rouge and other theatres in Paris from the age of 14, she became a chorus girl in Edwardian musical comedies, briefly on Broadway in 1905, then in London for several years and back in Paris in 1912. She got her big break in 1913, when she was offered a leading role in a revue presented by the impresario C B Cochran. The show was a hit and established Delysia (as she was known) as a star. During World War I, she starred in a string of West End revues and an operetta, all of which consolidated her success. In the star vehicle ‘Afgar’, from 1919 to 1921, first in London, then New York and on tour in the U.S., Delysia’s fame was at its height, and the critics celebrated her lively performance. Returning to London in 1922, Delysia fell ill and was forced to withdraw temporarily from the stage. From 1924, she was again starring in successful revues. In 1929 this became her first appearance in a non-musical play, a comedy by Frederick Jackson, co-starring Violet Vanbrugh, the older sister of Irene.
In this comedy she plays a French lady who ensnares her English lover into marriage. The Times said of her performance: ‘If she has a dull phrase to speak she speaks it as if it had that moment leapt joyfully to her mind; if she has a good saying, it comes from her with a sparkle seven times its own. Her eyes have humour, her fingers, wit; she gives an exquisite grace to trifles; and when she wishes to be serious for a moment, no one is impatient, every one listens, knowing that good seriousness will suddenly break into a mocking flash. And even when she bows in acknowledgment of a tumult of applause there is, in her delicate graciousness, something which distinguishes an actress from those who hopefully gambol on to the stage and cheerfully flounder off it.’
9th December 1929 – IN OTHER WORDS
On the stage – for six days – IN OTHER WORDS – This was a continuation of the “Bits & Pieces” tour, incorporating the changes that had taken place over the past two and a half years. Almost all the new material was from “Between Ourselves” which George Robey had just produced in Canada. The company arrived back from Canada on December 10th the previous year and immediately began rehearsals to open their new show just ten days later. They discovered there was already a touring revue using the name “Between Ourselves”, and so, at the last minute, came up with the title “In Other Words”. The show was loosely linked by the story of a Gretna Green elopement, with the eloping couple pursued to Holland (for a Dutch scena) and to an oasis in the middle East (for an Oriental scena with Robey as a bearded Sheik). However, this was a flimsy device, and “ the show bears more affinity to an old-style music-hall bill, with turns sandwiched together with designed heterogeneity, than to a present day revue” (The Stage). Other set-pieces included “Services”, with the company appearing as bagpipe-playing Scottish soldiers, hornpipedancing Jack Tars, airmen and policemen. The comedy items saw George Robey appear as Nurse Daisy Dillwater, as a jewel thief, a Beefeater, and as a horn-blowing Boy Scout accompanied by Marie Blanche as a Girl Guide. (The Five Jewels were an Indian-club throwing act; the Dewar Brothers were acrobatic tumblers; and the Gipsy Quintet provided close-harmony and operatic items.)
It was one of the rare George Robey West End flops. However, the show went straight into a provincial tour, and continued to play to packed houses through the whole of 1929, and through to February 1930.
16th December 1929 – WHITE CARGO
On the stage – for six days – WHITE CARGO – A revival of the 1923 London and Broadway hit play by Leon Gordon “White Cargo”, which was in turn adapted from the novel Hell’s Playground by Ida Vera Simonto, opened at the Empire. The story of the only four white men in the African jungle eagerly awaiting the arrival of the riverboat Congo Queen. Wilbur Ashley (Douglas Emery) and his boss, Harry Witzel (Terence Maxwell), have grown to hate each other. Ashley is finally going home, and the boat is also bringing his replacement, Langford (Bernard Lee), for a four-year stint. The other two white men are the alcoholic doctor (William Dewhurst) and missionary Reverend Dr. Roberts (Albert Durnley). Harry and Langford get off to a bad start, and it only goes downhill from there. It takes all of the efforts of the doctor and Roberts to keep the two men from each other’s throat. The situation becomes worse when Tondelayo (Karen Stanley-Alder), a seductive native woman, returns. Harry, as resident magistrate, had already previously ordered her to leave his district as a disruptive, amoral influence. Tondelayo begins to work her wiles on Langford. Despite the warnings by all three of the other men (and perhaps to spite Harry), he eventually succumbs to her charms. When Harry orders her expelled once more, Langford decides to marry her. Roberts reveals that she is not a native, but rather half Egyptian and half Arab, and in spite of his better judgment, reluctantly joins them in holy matrimony. After five months, Tondelayo has grown bored of her husband. However, when she tries to seduce Harry, he reminds her that she is Mrs. Langford “until death do you part”. That gives her an idea. When her husband becomes sick, the doctor gives her some medicine to give him periodically. She obtains poison and makes him drink some of it instead. However, Harry suspects what she is trying to do. He leaves, then returns just as she is about to give Langford another dose. Harry forces her to drink the rest of the poison. She runs away screaming and collapses on the jungle floor. The doctor takes Langford away on the Congo Queen for better medical treatment. From the boat comes Langford’s replacement: a young Worthing (Lawrence Shiel). Harry grabs him and forcefully tells him that he will stick around. The play had been on tour since it’s London outing in June.
24th December 1929 – WAKE UP AND DREAM
On the stage – fro TWO weeks – WAKE UP AND DREAM – Opening for a two week period over Christmas, Charles B Cochran’s revue “Wake Up And Dream!” transferred directly from the London Pavilion. The show was co-authored by Mr Cochran and Cole Porter who contributed five songs.
The normal, and expected, looting of the world for talent by Cochran was less evident than in most of his revues. The new faces for “Wake up and Dream!” were there for their dancing expertise, for dance had returned as the main ingredient. Another priority was the decor, and a host of talents introduced striking set designs, costumes and lighting. Oliver Messel, Ada Peacock, Norman Wilkinson, Paul Colin, Rex Whistler, Marc Henri and Laverdet were allotted their scenes, and each brought individuality and, overall, a stylish programme. All the leads: Jessie Matthews, Sonnie Hale and Tilly Losch, had been in the original London production of “This Year of Grace!”. Once again the solo pianist in the orchestra was Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson. Apparently the cost of the costumes was a staggering £7,195. In all there were over five hundred costumes, fifty of which were designed by ace designer Reville-Terry.
The opening song became the show’s title, sung by George Metaxa with thick Greek charm and promised an awakening and an evening of escapism as a rich but humourless couple were urged to ‘start living’. The couple were to ‘Wake up and dream’, and the ‘dream’ followed in a pageant styled ballet by Tilly Losch. From Pandora’s Box came a legion of dancers and a fashion parade of historical and mythical figures in resplendent costume and, in some cases, Messel masks. The most acclaimed Tilly Losch sequence was the first act finale, a scene that was introduced by William Stephens’ rendering of ‘The banjo that man Joe plays’. The ballet was ‘San Francisco, the Gold Rush, 1849’ which was visually beautiful and brought together the different choreographic talents of Miss Losch and Max Rivers. Charmingly dressed ladies in crinoline were the first to dance followed Tilly Losch and Toni Birkmayer in a speciality ‘Flirtation dance’. The Ragamuffins, led by Chester Fredericks, and the Emigrants entrance had Max Rivers vibrant modern movements. Tina Meller, a Spanish dancer who also proved to be an excellent actress, danced to a traditional Spanish air entitled ‘Farruca’, played on the guitar by Antonio Rodriguez. Russian folk music was the inspiration for the dancing, and especially foot-work of Freda, Gertrude and Louis Berkoff. The scene ended with the entire company on stage in a hymn to the Banjo.
Cole Porter’s songs included some which were to become standards. The outstanding comic song was ‘Let’s do it’ which a few years later, with Porter’s permission, Noël Coward wrote different lyrics to. It was sung in “Wake up and Dream!” as a duet for Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale, on Broadway it had been heard in Porter’s Paris. The lovers also performed ‘Looking at you’ backed by Cochran’s Young Ladies, this song came from La Revue des Ambassadeurs, a Paris production of the previous year. Porter’s other songs were ‘I’ve got a crush on you’ for Margie Finley and Chester Fredericks in a Max Rivers speciality dance routine, ‘I loved him’ and ‘Wait until it’s bedtime’, both solos for Jessie Matthews.
Comedy was the basic province of Sonnie Hale and he introduced his characterisation of Sir Thomas Beecham in this show. In a piece called ‘Operatic Pills’ he conducted, and gave out his medicine, surrounded by opera characters in a Rex Whistler setting. In ‘The Night Club’ he played the hostess who had trouble with a gigolo (the song ‘I’m a gigolo’ was sung by William Stephens) and a policeman played by Chester Fredericks – Max Rivers choreographed the piece. The comedy players on the whole were not too well served. In addition to Sonnie Hale there were Douglas Byng and Fred Groves. The general view was that Cochran had done it again. He had exchanged the satirical Coward for the gentler jibes of Porter and Hastings Turner and he had brought back dance as the major feature. He had shown his superb taste in choice of a variety of excellent designers, many of whom were not recognised theatrical costumiers. In addition, he had built Jessie Matthews to the position of undisputed star. In “Wake Up and Dream!” she was given far more to do, and she proved to be as comfortable in dance as in song and sketch. Her affair with Sonnie Hale, which had become quite open, did no harm to the box-office. “Wake Up And Dream!” left the Empire and this country as it opened 2 weeks later on Broadway in an almost identical production.