Tag Archives: Irene Vanburgh

Thomson and Barrie: The admirable Crichton

The recent post about Hugh Thomson’s illustrations to J M Barrie’s play Quality Street attracted quite a bit of attention in an otherwise quiet month so I was happy to take up an offer to do the same with Barrie’s other play of 1901/02, The Admirable Crichton. This was one I had heard of, thanks to the 1957 film version starring Kenneth More, seen many years ago on one of those Sunday afternoons of childhood when you’d watch anything that was on. The final scene has remained in my memory, but no spoilers yet.

1901 had been a good year for Barrie. Quality Street opened in New York and he finished Crichton while he was attending rehearsals for Quality Street. Within a short space of time he had two plays on the London stage. He and his wife were in the process of moving out of their Gloucester Road house to another house in Leinster Gardens, Bayswater which was close to Kensington Gardens, a favourite haunt of both of them.

Crichton is an odd sort of story. It was described as “a fantasy in four acts” but it is also a satire or maybr even some kind of parable about the rigidly stratified structure of Edwardian society. It begins with a portrait of an aristocratic household with the mildly eccentric Lord Loam, his three daughters and Crichton the butler a man who knows his place and wishes everyone else would stay in theirs.

001 p38 Lord Loam - My friends I am glad to see you all looking so happy

Here Lord Loam addresses his family, some friends and his staff at one of his regular teas at which the family serve the staff. Everyone  is uncomfortable with this arrangement but him.

Lady Mary’s fiance Lord Brocklehurst has an uncomfortable conversation with Tweeny the “in between” maid.

002 Brocklehurs and Tweeny - what sort of weather have you been having in the kitchen

Lord Loam has also annoinced that on the forthcoming sea voyage his three daughters will have to share one lady’s maid between them. The whole thing leaves the Ladies Mary, Catherine and Agatha shocked and dismayed.

003 I have decided --- one maid between them

And then really quite tired.

008 The ladies are at rest until it is time to dress

This portrait of  the indolent trio in a state of profound relaxation is one of Thomson’s best. It’s curious to see him portraying contemporary dress.

The next time the three are pictured together is after the party is shipwrecked on an island. They still look pretty relaxed.

009 They have a sufficiency of garments

Of course the hapless aristos are not really equipped for life in the wild.

013 Lord Loam - Not one monkey had sufficient intelligence to grasp my meaning

Lord Loam cannot get the monkeys to understand him. Just as the story has now moved into the realm of fantasy Thomson’s illustrations shift into another mode to show a partly realistic, partly magical setting.

Crichton and Tweeny of course turn their hands to the business of staying alive on the island.

010 Tweeny- Look what I found

Their practical skills and the ability to cook food changes the group dynamic and puts Crichton in a leading role.

014 One by one they steal nearer to the pot

After a couple of years on the island Crichton is in charge and goes by the title the Guv.

Tweeny now runs the household.

016 Tweeny had dressed wisely for an island

While the three sisters have become able hunters.

017 We've some ripping fish for the Gov's dinner

This is all very reminiscent of Never Never Land.

020 We were chasing goats on the big slopes and you out-distanced us all

Lady Mary now callede Polly hunts down a goat.

Crichton asks her to marry him to general consternation.


At almost the exact moment they hear the sound of a ship. Lady Mary wants Crichton to ignore it so they can all stay in the wild world. But Critchton does his duty as he sees it and sets off a signal to the rescuers. They return to their old social positions back in London for the final act.

026 Well were you all equal on the island

They all deny the truth despite an interrogation from Lord Brocklehurst’s mother. Barrie playe around with the ending. At one tiem it was suggested that Crichton and Tweeny went off together to run a pub in the Harrow Road. In the first version I looked at, the limited edition, he simply announces his intention to depart and turns out the light.

The first actress to play the role of Lady Mary was  Irene Vanbrugh who has featured on the blog before in this post about Trelawny of the Wells.


She looks a little like Peter Pan in this photograph and even more so in this picture, which was much reproduced at the time:


The first Peter Pan was actually Nina Boucicault the daughter of the impressarion Dion Boucicault (we’ve  met him before at his house in the Old Brompton Road).

From a modern standpoint the play looks like a quaint comedy of manners, but writing in 1922 H M Walbrook called it “one of the most penetrating dramatic social pamphlets of the day.” For me it’s an interesting foray into a fantasy world which never seemed too far away with Barrie. And I wonder what influence Thomson’s illustrations had on later works.


Thanks once again to Peter Collins of Westminster Central Reference Library for suggesting the Admirable Crichton and loaning it to me. And thanks to Kim for transporting it.

Trelawny at the Royal Court 1898

Currently playing at the Donmar Warehouse in London’s West End is a modern version of Arthur Wing Pinero’s play of 1898, Trelawny of the Wells, directed by the well know film director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice, Hanna). Here are two of the actors:

Rose Trelawny and Imogen Parrott

The characters of Rose Trelawny and Imogen Parrott , played by Amy Morgan and Susannah Fielding. Back in 1898 the play was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. Rose Trelawny was played by this up and coming actress:

T05 Oh, this dreadful half-hour after dinner

Irene Vanburgh,  who had known Lewis Carroll when she was 16, became one of the most famous stage actresses of her day and was later made a Dame,  here in a picture captioned “Oh, this dreadful half hour after dinner, every, every evening.”

The 1898 Imogen Parrott looked like this:

T16 Look at the sunshine!

The interesting thing about Trelawny for me is that it has always been a historical play. We’re used to costume dramas on television and film so the two modern actors don’t look odd to us – it’s just the past, when quaint costumes were worn. But the costumes the 1898 cast were wearing were also old fashioned to the “modern” audience. The play is set in the 1860s and one of the themes is how the old melodramatic styles of theatre were giving way to realism. But a large part of the comedy in 1898 was the 1860s themselves – “the scarecrow period of British taste” as Malcolm C Salaman calls it in the official souvenir programme of Trelawny. He looks back at the 1860s in much the same way as modern commentators look back at the 1970s (the decade that taste forgot etc). The principal target of the comedy is the costumes of the women, specifically the crinoline dress to which he devotes the first six pages of his text. Here is a typical sample:

“..and see winsome Rose Trelawny, pretty Imogen Parrott and comely Aviona Bunn …in their flounces and frilled frocks of enormous circumference, to their pork-pie hats with feathers, or coal-scuttle bonnets, their back hair hanging in baglike nets of chenille, their elastic-sided boots, and their garish parasols assisting an incongruous complication of colours, are not our aesthetic sensibilities tempered with tender complacency, as we realise a sense of old-fashioned quaintness we remember that our mothers used to be garmented even so, while in such apparel were our maiden aunts wooed and won?”

Salaman goes on at some length even listing different varieties of crinoline and quoting from old catalogues. I realised that for him and his readers, crinolines were not only amusing but also unfamiliar. After all they weren’t able to watch adaptations of Dickens or Trollope every evening on TV as we can, and none of them had ever seen The King and I or the Innocents (the film of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw) for me two of the most striking examples of crinoline wearing in cinema (oddly both of them starring Deborah Kerr). So maybe we can forgive Mr Salaman’s obsession.

Unfortunately we can’t see the colours he mentions but here are some more of the costumes:

T02 I'm hitting them hard this season

Imogen Parrott again, I think.

T03 Ho, ho, ho Oh don't Mr Colpoys

A bit of comedy going on there with some other members of the cast.

T07 Frederick, dear, wake

The man’s whiskers attempting to compete with the crinoline in this picture, and below a distinct touch of melodrama:

T08 Is this whist, may I ask

I’m at a bit of a disadvantage having never seen or read any version of the play so I don’t know who the white haired actor is playing but he certainly looks like he’s in a melodrama.

Here he is in two scenes with Irene Vanburgh:

T12 Read no more! Return them to me!

Good pointing there, and a touch of Svengali in this one:

T10 Cordelia! Cordelia - with Kean!

There were sub-plots involving comic servants:

T09 I discovered 'em clustered in the doorway

And a number of scenes involving several cast members sitting around:

T11 Life, a comedy by Thomas Wrench

This is a scene from the play within the play – “Life: a comedy, by Thomas Wrench”. I think this would be another ( or a rehearsal):

T17 Oh! My dears! Let us get on with the rehearsal!

As you can imagine it all ends well, with a toast:

T00 Trelawny! Trelawny of the Wells!

The lovers are happily united:

T01 He forgets everything but the parts

Did Arthur Wing Pinero imagine that in 2013 he would have two plays on in London? (The Magistrate, featuring John Lithgow recently finished a run at the National Theatre). Did he think that audiences would still be enjoying Trelawny of the Wells over a hundred years after its first performance? He would have been pleased I’m sure but perhaps not entirely surprised. The caption for this picture reads: “Isn’t the world we live in, merely a world – such a queer little one!”

T15 Isn't the world we live such a queer little one!


I’ve written a companion post to this one – A brief history of the crinoline, which is on the RBKC Library blog here

If  like me you like to consult imdb while watching TV you may appreciate the fact that  John Lithgow appeared in a production of Trelawny as a young man in which the role of Imogen Parrott was played by Meryl Streep. Here is a picture to prove it:

trelawney-of-the-wells-1975 meryl streep as imogen john lithgow as gadd

No crinoline visible there.

Pictures from the current production of Trelawny are from the Donmar Warehouse website where there is an excellent gallery of images.

Try Googling Trelawny for more, including a colourful version staged in Pitlochry and the version with Lithgow and Streep.

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