Tag Archives: The Barretts of Wimpole Street

Amateur dramatics: 1936

This week’s post comes like last week’s from 1936. But the pictures seem a world away from the modernist interiors of those two houses in Old Church Street. The Society of St Genesius was a group of amateur actors associated with the Brompton Oratory and the Oratory School in Chelsea. But these amateur theatricals were not just church hall performances. In May 1936 the Society took the Fortune Theatre in Drury Lane for a week, and presented eight performances of a play first performed only six years before.

Barretts programme

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is Rudolf Besier’s only famous work. It had been turned down by producers in London before being staged in Malvern. Thanks to the interest of the American actress Katharine Cornell it was staged on Broadway and became a major success.  It was quite an ambitious project for the amateur actors of the St Genesius Players.

Barretts 002

The play tells the story of the romance between Robert Browning an aspiring poet and the already successful poet Elizabeth Barrett who was an invalid and in the play at least a virtual prisoner in her home. There is a loving but stern father:

Barretts 011b

And a sister who begs for Elizabeth to be allowed to follow her heart:

Barretts 005a Elizabeth says Let her go papa let her go at once

Some general family activity (I don’t quite know what’s going on here but it looks like a lighter scene):

Barretts 004 Bella Oh uncle you're a darling

Declarations of love:

Barretts 004a Robert I love you

A bit of standing (and sitting) around:

Barretts 009b

Until finally Elizabeth can say farewell to the sickroom:

Barretts 006 Elizabeth says what a glorious triumph

According to one account the week’s run was not particularly profitable but they did get some good reviews. The Catholic Herald said their efforts were “highly creditable”. The Universe singled out Miss O’Neill’s excellent performance as Elizabeth. There was similar praise from the Star, the Morning Post and the West London Press. So let the cast take a bow:

Barretts cast

A year later the players tried something different:

At the Villa Rose programme

A E W Mason is remembered now mostly for the novel of imperial adventure The Four Feathers but he also wrote detective novels and plays. At the Villa Rose was published as a novel in 1910 but updated for the stage. Miss M O’Neill who took the leading role in Barretts played the villainous maid Helene Vauquier who conspires to kill her employer Mme Dauvray and put the blame on her innocent companion Celia Harland (Miss N Batson,who played one of the Barrett sisters). Here she looks on as the sinister fortune teller (and gang leader) hoodwinks Mme Dauvray.

At the Villa Rose 004b

Celia is kidnapped by the gang and spirited away to Geneva for a little bit of bondage.

At the Villa Rose 002a

This was performed in the school hall. (Relatively innocent times, these).

Fortunately Mason’s regular detective Inspector Hanaud is on hand to solve the case. Hanaud is one of the first 20th century fictional detectives, thought to have been one of the models for Hercule Poirot. He is played by the troupe’s leading actor Tom Riley who had played the stern Mr Barrett.

At the Villa Rose 003a

He seizes the villains, and rescues the comatose Celia before her face can be dowsed with vitriol (Bondage and an acid attack. Strong stuff)

At the Villa Rose 003b

She revives for a romantic moment with the Inspector.

At the Villa Rose 004a

There’s just time for the obligatory cast photo.

At the Villa Rose 005a

And although they didn’t get to perform the play in a west end theatre they got a rave review in the West London Press. I won’t reproduce it – too many spoilers.


St Genesius is of course the patron saint of actors.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street was filmed twice, but At the Villa Rose was filmed three times, including a silent version in 1920.

By next week we may be able to leave the 1930s.

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