Tag Archives: Royal Court Theatre

Once upon a time in the 20s – 1: at the Royal Court Theatre

I have a feeling we may be looking at the 1920s quite a lot this year, so I’m getting into the mood with a trip to the theatre. What better place to stop at but the Royal Court, in Sloane Square. What’s on?

HH p1 1921

In 1921 another work by the theatrical master George Bernard Shaw, the only person to win a Nobel Prize and an Oscar. But those came later

Who’s in it?

HH p3 - Copy

Sounds good to me. Do you see the fourth on the bill?

HH p4 - Copy (2)Edith Evans as Lady Utterwood, aged 33 but still looking as if she had just uttered those immortal words: “a handbag?”

Heartbreak House 1923 - Copy

Doing a fine bit of lounging there.

Heartbreak House 1923 - Copy (2)

The action features a Zeppelin raid.


While we’re waiting, have a flick through the programme.

Ad from Cosi Fan Tutte programme 02 - Copy

Marshall & Snelgrove, already merged with Debenhams by this time, but the name survived until the 1970s

Ad from Cosi Fan Tutte programme 03a

The permanent wave, the look of the moment.

HH p4 - Copy - Copy

Only yards from the theatre…..

Ad from Cosi Fan Tutte programme 04 - Copy

Harvey Nichols, of course still a name we know.

One with the show, a couple of years later.

2nd act

It wasn’t all highbrow stuff at the Royal Court. Here’s Carte Blanche, a revue from 1923.

Carte Blanche 1923 - Copy

As well as the Two Bobs (unknown to Wikipedia), it featured the many faces of Odette Myrtil, playing the fiddle,

Odette Myrtil in Carte Blanche - Copy (2)

and whoever she is here.

Odette Myrtil in Carte Blanche 02 - Copy

We have a programme for the revue but I can’t work out which pieces these costumes come from. I was intrigued by one line in the credits: “Pig kindly supplied by C and T Harris”. No pictures I’m afraid.

But back to more serious stuff. In 1924 Edith Evans was back at the Royal Court playing several roles in Shaw’s five-night epic Back to Methuselah

Back to Methuselah 1924 - Copy

The first section features Adam and Eve. Eve is played by the young Gwen ffrangcon Davies. Hammer filmafficionados may remember as the Countess, one of the sinister house guests in The Devil Rides Out. But here she had an innocent role.

Back to Methuselah 1924 - Copy (2)

It’s Miss Evans who takes the sinister role as the Serpent. Nice costume.

Back to Methuselah is a series of five plays which start in the Garden of Eden but three of which are set in the future as far as 31,920 AD so it’s science fiction (but not as we know it.) Shaw apparently thought it would be read rather than performed but there were productions in New York, Birmingham and London.

Back to Methuselah 1924 02 - Copy

[Cain and Abel]

Below Scott Sunderland and Evelyn Hope play statues of Ozymandian and Cleopatra-Femiramis brought to life by a sculptor. Or are they robots? The press coverage and the synopsis don’t quite tally.

Back to Methuselah 1924 03 - Copy

I cannot imagine what audiences made of the cycle of plays. Perhaps they were ready for Shaw’s wild speculations.

I was intending to leave it there, with the intention of coming back to the theatre in the 20s later. But in case I don’t let me leave you with an image of a play much more frequently performed, on more than one occasion at the Royal Court.

MND 1921 O and T - Copy

You know it, don’t you?


No postscript this week.

Royal Court posters

I’m not a great afficionado of the theatre, so I haven’t been able to think of a clever title for this week’s post. In fact when I tried to think of all the times I’ve been to a theatre since I came to London in the 70s I got past the fingers of one hand but didn’t make it to the end of the second. Still, more by luck than judgement I’ve managed to see some good performances – Malcolm McDowell and Beryl Reid in Entertaining Mr Sloane, Jack Shepherd in Michael Kerr’s Dispatches, local hero David Rappaport (and many others) in Ken Campbell’s Illuminatus Trilogy, and one visit to the Royal Court Theatre to see David Edgar’s Mary Barnes, which is chiefly memorable to me for Simon Callow’s performance as a psychiatrist.

But anyway, my inconsequential reminiscences bring us to the Royal Court Theatre and the collection of posters we have in the Chelsea Local Studies picture collection. I’m not attempting any kind of thematic or chronological selection.I’ve picked these particular ones because I’ve heard of the play, or the  author, or one of the actors, or (mostly) because I just liked the image.

00002 Top Girls

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls from the early 1980s featuring several well known names.

This revival of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 absurdist drama has just one name on the poster:

00010 Ubu Roi

Max Wall the former music hall / variety comedian famous for his iconic physical style of comedy who turned to straight acting in his later years and did many “serious” roles. It also featured Colin Welland, Kenneth Cranham, Robert Powell and Jack Shepherd and was designed by David Hockney.

Somewhat earlier (note the phone number):

00006 The Ginger Man

An adaptation by J P Donleavy of his own sensational novel. This may not be the original production which starred Richard Harris but the names are famous enough for me. That 1959 version went to Dublin but was closed after three days for “offensiveness”. I’ve read the novel and from this distance in time I can barely grasp what the problem might have been.

A different degree of offensiveness was also a problem in 1972. John Osborne’s career wasn’t going too well. His new play A sense of detachment didn’t altogether help.

00018 A sense of detachment

His own wife Jill Bennett pulled out from a leading role to be replaced by the diminutive actress Denise Coffey. (In 1972 I would have known her as one of the cast of the pre-Python children’s comedy show Do not adjust your set.). The play was pornographic according to critics and many were outraged by the lines Rachel Kempson had to say – although Kempson herself was deeply committed to the part and dived into the audience to attack two of the most vociferous hecklers. Clever poster, though.

In an earlier age Carry On star Jimy Thompson took the lead in a version of a French farce.

00007 Monsieur Blaise

It was adapted by his wife in 1964.

There was some nudity in this 1974 production.

00003 Life class

Rosemary Martin spent an hour naked on stage as an artist’s model. Alan Bates, who famously performed nude in Women in Love, kept his clothes on. There was a poster featuring the unclothed Ms Martin which caused a minor scandal on the tube but this version is more decorous.

Another pair of actors who rose to fame in the 1960s were in this 1973 double bill:

00017 Krapps last tape

Krapp’s last tapes is a solo performance as was Not I, in which Bille Whitelaw, now celebrated as one of the great performers of Beckett’s work delivers her monologue with only her mouth visible.

Tony Richardson directed this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in January 1962.

00019 A Midsummer night's dream

It featured Ronnie Barker, James Bolam, Samantha Eggar, Alfred Lynch, Corin and Lynne Redgrave, Rita Tushingham, David Warner and Nicol Williamson (to name, unfairly, just the ones I’ve heard of.) And the image is pretty striking.

Edward Bond did his own version of a Shakespeare story in 1971.

00020 Lear

Quite a violent piece of work by all accounts. Bond also produced another new version of a classic.

00012 Three sisters

It’s a more conventional poster.

A couple of famous names in the last part of a trilogy of absurdist drama in 1962:

00011 Exit the King

Big Wolf (1972) by the German playwright Harald Mueller. I’ve included this one purely because I like the image.

00003 big wolf - Copy

This 1970 comedy by the Brooklyn writer  Michael Weller has a provocative title.

00005 Cancer

The play was an examination of communal living in the counter culture. Weller later changed the title to the far less interesting Moonchildren.

One of my favourites:

00009 Other worlds

Robert Holman’s play is set in north Yorkshire in the 18th century. One of the main characters was a talking monkey, which apparently confused the critics.

I may have demonstrated that I don’t know that much about the theatre. But I do know that these posters are a fascinating aspect of the history of graphic art in the second half of the 20th century.


Was it colourful enough for you? If you enjoyed theses images let me know. There are many more. We’ll be back in black and white next week.

Finally, a bonus image – a poster I scanned before we had the book scanner so the top and bottom are cut off, but it’s still worth seeing.

Sugar and Spice - Royal Court poster

Sugar and Spice by Nigel Williams  (1980) featuring the young Toyah Willcox and just over her shoulder a just as young Caroline Quentin.

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.

%d bloggers like this: