TOWARDS the end of this tour I received a letter from Leedham Bantock suggesting that he should book me for a trial trip with a sketch, which he also recommended should be founded on a one-act play of mine called Mummydom, which was produced at Penley’s Theatre some years ago. It had a cast of six characters, and besides solos for the soprano, tenor, and comedian, there were two or three concerted numbers in music, all of which had been written by Wilfrid Bendall.
The piece met with a certain success when produced, so I was inclined to think something might be done with it. I compressed it into about half an hour’s work and cut out the tenor part entirely, on the advice of Roland Cunningham, which was really disinterested of him as I wanted him to play it. I only had a fortnight in town to get things in train, and as Christmas week was part of it there was not much time to do it in. Also it is a bad time of year to get a stage to rehearse on, and but for the kindness of Mr. Glenister in lending me the Pavilion I could not have done it. Then we had to unearth the scenery and costumes which had been stowed away for years at Hudson’s Depository, and were only found three days before I was due to leave London for Liverpool. However, it was all complete at last, and Sunday, 29 December, 1907, saw me leave for the provinces for the first time with my own company – four artists besides myself, a stage manager, five ladies as choristers, and my valet, who was to play a policeman. We had, originally, six choristers, but as it made our number up to thirteen I was superstitious enough to reduce them to five and even then we started thirteen, as the scoring was unfinished and the composer came to Liverpool to complete it. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey, having always been rather fond of travelling about, and we arrived in Liverpool in great spirits, looking forward to Monday night. I dined on the Sunday at the Racquet Club with A. G. Tait, a brother of the famous champion golfer and no mean exponent himself, who always provides me some pleasant days at Formby; and made an early retirement to rest full of happiness, hope, and hospitality.
The next morning I paid an early visit to the Empire to see how things shaped, and received a shock – the first of a series and rather a severe one. I, of course, knew that my scenery was in no way elaborate; indeed, it only consisted of two cloths, but I thought it would be sufficient when “masked in” by the proscenium wings; but to say I was horrified is not putting it too strongly when I saw two miserable little rags hanging in the centre of the somewhat large stage and was met by the stage manager’s inquiry, “Is this all you have, Mr. Barrington?” To my feeling of horror succeeded an access of shame at making such a poverty-stricken appearance, and then came the awful thought – What was to be done? I would most willingly have disappeared down a trap if there had been one, but there was not, and the situation had to be met. The whole of the staff were most kind and helpful, and it was fixed up at last; but fancy my feelings at being obliged to mask in the catacombs with wings of autumn woods in England; and I was lucky to get them, too, for they only provide a limited amount of scenery in most halls, and that mostly interiors.
The following day we scoured Liverpool and eventually found some rock-wings at the Theatre Royal, which were most kindly lent to me, and I also ordered an entirely new scene, which was promised me for the following Monday at Birmingham, and came as promised. I began to learn things on the first Monday at Liverpool, and I never left off while on the halls.
The first thing I learnt was the delightful courtesy shown, combined with a readiness to do anything to promote one’s comfort on the part of every one, from the manager to the call-boy; not only in Liverpool, be it understood, but in every hall it has been my privilege to visit. The conductors of the different orchestras have a very difficult task, but I never found one who was not anxious to do all in his power to help, and I have had numbers composed, scored, copied, an rehearsed all in two or three days. Among other things which did not take me very long to learn was the important position occupied by the artist who is “top of the bill.” On the Monday night I was disappointed to find that my sketch was the absolutely last turn, but I was told by several of the other artists that “it’s the custom here,” so felt more at ease. However, I was so much worried by the people leaving before the sketch was over, not because they did not like it but because it was close on “closing time” for the public-houses, that on the second night I got it transferred some three places earlier, much to the advantage of my sketch and, as I found after, the annoyance of one of the other items, whose very indignant remonstrances at being “pushed about” were met by the unanswerable argument – “Mr. Barrington is the top of the bill and must be considered.”
I felt considerably flattered to see many of the other artists standing in the wings frequently to watch my sketch, but the feeling was, to a certain extent, discounted on discovering that the attraction was the song so admirably given by Winifred O’Connor.
The dressing-room accommodation was rather a shock to me after the luxury I had been in the habit of thinking indispensable at Daly’s and other theatres; but worse than that were the draughty corridors. We all caught colds, and mine, of course, developed into my old enemy laryngitis, and by the Saturday night I was nearly speechless.
On Sunday it took us five solid hours to get to Birmingham, snow and sleet pursuing us all the way; and I went straight to the hospital for a specialist, that is to say, on the telephone, for nothing would have tempted me to leave the generous warmth of the hotel fireside. After I had been subjected to the usual “treatment” at his hands, I went to bed firmly convinced that unless the frost gave I should not sing on the Monday night. How thankful I was on waking to find the rain coming down in sheets and no sign of snow is perhaps easier to tell than understand.
What small accumulation of success we had acquired in Liverpool evaporated under the trying conditions which obtained in Birmingham, for I was ill the whole week, twice going direct from bed to work; indeed, but for the consideration shown me by Mr. Foster, the local manager, with regard to my personal comfort, I doubt if I could have pulled through.
My personal friend and agent, Leedham Bantock, came down to see the sketch and make suggestions, and our council included Foster, who had some useful hints to impart, the result being that we decided on such radical alterations in the way of plot, dresses, dialogue, and numbers as took a fortnight to arrange and rehearse, thus most fortunately escaping Edinburgh (where the sketch went extremely well in its original form); and being tried for the first time on the Monday at Glasgow, where the changes elaborated at such expense of time, trouble and money so nearly killed the sketch that for the “second house” the same night I reverted to the original form, with the exception of retaining a bright little number I had added, rather on the lines of the Six Little Wives, and possibly on that account quite a success.
It was a tremendous effort to get all our scenery and dresses out of the theatre and down to the station in time to catch the eleven o’clock train on Saturday night to Edinburgh, the alternative being one which would have necessitated our travelling from about five o’clock on Sunday evening till about ten the next morning. These journeys form some of the difficulties and inconveniences that music-hall artists are subjected to, owing, of course, to there not being enough passengers to warrant a special, and the commissariat department is entirely a personal affair, it being the exception to find any food en route. I learned another lesson during this week in Edinburgh, which I found extremely useful. There was a very important sort of dream-medley sketch, which appeared to necessitate the services of quite a number of artists, being played, and having been told by several people that they could not make out what it was about, and this view being evidently shared by the audience, in spite of which there were three or four “recalls” every night, I felt impelled to seek the solution of such apparent contradiction. With this object in view I saw the sketch twice myself and came to the conclusion that it really was difficult of comprehension, but as to the “recalls,” the chief artist concerned supplied the lesson I refer to, for I noticed that however much or little the applause at its conclusion, the curtain was invariably raised and lowered some three or four times, and eventually a kind of spurious enthusiasm was actually evoked. I applied this lesson at once to my own sketch, restricting the “curtain-work” to twice, however, and was delighted to find it eminently successful, and also most encouraging to the members of my little company; surely a proof that it is quite the right thing to do.
What a nightmare the first performance in Glasgow was, though! The alterations, from which we all expected so much, necessitated a rapid change of dress in the wings between Reggie White and myself, and the two ladies left on the stage were instructed to “gag” if there should be a wait. There was an awful wait, but no “gags” were forthcoming, and the piece ended so tamely that even the double “recall” was no tonic to our depression. Fortunately, there was just time between the two houses to revert to the old order of things, the wisdom of which was fully justified by the result. In the discarded version I made one entrance in a dress strongly resembling a certain well-known poster; at least we all thought so, but apparently the audience did not notice it, as I failed to raise a laugh when I quoted the words on the poster, “Ma mither winna gie me ony mair Oxo!” Possibly my Scotch was faulty, though I hardly think that was entirely to account for it, as on the Saturday night, being the Burns Birthday Celebration, I wrote and sang a special verse, with a few Scotch words in it, which went like “hot cakes.”
From Glasgow to the Coliseum, London, was another far cry, made in a most leisurely manner on account of the numerous portions of the train which dropped off at one station to be replaced by others which had to be carried some distance and then thrown off to look after themselves, the most prolific meeting-place being Crewe, where we spent some two hours and more shunting on to different sets of metals until they eventually found one that led to London, much to the relief of the officials (not mention ourselves!), who appeared to have suddenly tired of playing trains with us.
By the time we had reached our Coliseum week the sketch had really got into first-class working order, and I venture to say that nothing in the programme was more heartily received; but our hopes of a continuance for a few weeks were dispelled by the fact that, owing to the initial performances not having aroused sufficient enthusiasm, certain dates kept for us had been filled up and we were doomed to be homeless wanderers. In this way I learned yet another lesson, for had I had the foresight to have invited other managers to see the sketch it might have appealed to them as “the very thing they wanted.” Lessons are usually costly affairs, and this was no exception to the rule.
Having arranged to return to the Savoy in April, there was no occasion to look for permanent work in the meanwhile; but to keep my hand in I determined to give a week’s trial to a sketch written by Leedham Bantock, entitled Man the Lifeboat, the character of the old sailor who had been “coxswain of the boat for forty-three years” appealing to me very strongly, with its mixture of comedy and homely pathos. We both felt certain that it would prove very acceptable to the public, who seem to have a special fondness for the sea and sailors, and especially love a storm and a rescue.
Julian Hicks painted me a delightful cottage interior, with a large diamond-paned window showing the distant lighthouse and the storm clouds and an angry sea, contrasting well with the cosy firelight inside the room, where the three old cronies sat wassailing. I am not quite clear as to how the ancients of old “wassailed,” but we did it for a whole week on good English beer, and the after-effects were not so serious as those one reads about.
I searched London in vain to find a dozen cork jackets, sou’-westers, and oilskins as worn by lifeboatmen, for they naturally had to be the genuine article. However, I called in the assistance of my friend Flag-Commander W. B. Macdonald, who kindly scoured Portsmouth until he found me exactly what I wanted; and a most picturesque effect was obtained at the end of the sketch with all the men in their rough-weather kit, including the coxswain’s daughter, who had taken her father’s place and steered the boat.
With the addition of a little more comedy, it is my intention to make a prolonged tour with this sketch one of these days, the Fates being propitious, and it is just the kind of character I should like to make an appearance with in America.
My two “old cronies” were played by Danby and Bennett, the latter of whom was essaying a part for the first time, though having for some years been a chorister, and they were both excellent in two totally different types of hardy mariner. Frank Lacy was the young hero who was wrecked and saved by his sweetheart, and Terriss himself could not have been more breezy, but he was greatly chagrined that he had no part in the “wassailing,” and as the arrangement of the “properties” came into his department as stage manager, the enormous jug of beer, off which the froth had to be blown by one of the men, was found to be fitted with the necessary false bottom somewhat nearer the neck than it might have been under other circumstances.
With this sketch I found, to my great gratification, that the lesson I had learned as to “recalls” was quite superfluous, as they were a natural sequence of the happy conclusion. The lifeboat is now in dry-dock, being overhauled and put in readiness for next autumn, when the stormy winds do blow.
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