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Review of the 1879 Revival from The Times
Tuesday June 3, 1879
 
PRINCE OF WALES’S THEATRE

The bright little world in which Mrs. Bancroft has moved for a cycle of years, a world in which all the passions speak in a minor key and affect us with a piquant novelty by the intenseness of their pigmy natures, has now begun to revolve backwards round its sun before it shoots away altogether from our orbit. The old plays are being presented again and bygone successes are repeated with no loss of their original effect. The five months’ run of Caste has been succeeded by the summer programme – Sweethearts (an idyll, produced in 1874) and Good for Nothing (a comic drama, dating from 1851) – so timed in commencement and duration that one of them must fit in with any dinner-hour and any train from town; and they are preceded by Mr. Palgrave Simpson’s Heads or Tails, a piece of quite different order, once played at the Olympic by Robson and Mr. and Mrs Alfred Wigan, now carried through with spirit by Mr. Cecil, Mr. Conway, Mr. Kemble, Miss Ida Hertz, and by Miss A. Wilton, as an arch soubrette. This lasts for about half an hour, and the main burden of the rest of the evening falls upon Mrs. Bancroft.

It is hardly necessary to say how she sustains it in Sweethearts, a poetical contrast by Mr. Gilbert, sometimes charming and sometimes nearly revolting, as the feeling for beauty of form or the tendency to cynicism in meaning, which make up the two sides of the author’s work, alternately prevail. In the first act two young people are in love, but the pride of the girl is roused on hearing that her lover has suddenly determined, without consultation with her, to go to India; she pretends that he is indifferent to her, and teases him by mere courtesy when he comes to her to say “Good-bye,” full of vague hopes and tender sentiments. He asks for a flower and she gives him a whole pot of pelargoniums (sic) and congratulates him on his botanical tastes. When he is gone, disappointed, she runs to see him come back, sure that he will come, ready, now that she has punished him, to betray the secret of her heart. Her happy flutter of expectation when she thinks she sees him returning, her sudden tears when, like the knight in the ballad, he shakes his bridle-rein and rides away, had the old result on the audience.The emotions of Mrs. Bancroft are magnetic, and draw laughter and tears from some to whom these are rare luxuries.

In the next act she is an old lady with silver hair, and her lover has come back with the title and fortune of a retired Indian Chief Justice. He visits the old place without any precise consciousness or recollection of the particular circumstances which make it dear to him. To the charming old maid whom he converses with so unconcernedly, her petulant dismissal of her sweetheart has been the one event of her life, and she has treasured ever since his rosebud, in exchange for which she made him that ill-timed gift of pelargoniums.So there comes about the second contrast of the drama. The first is between the garden in the country in 1848 and the suburban grass-plot of 1878. The second is between the woman who throughout her quiet life has cherished and kept green her old passion and the man with the dust and ashes of a busy life accumulated over the once active volcano of his love.

In this part Mr. Bancroft, as Sir Henry Spreadbrow (formerly played by Mr. Coghlan), adopts a tone which emphasizes the careless harshness of his forgetful references to early days. It is a drawling tone which makes them thoroughly effective, but needlessly and excessively cruel. There is a further objection to it – that no retired Judge would be at all likely to use it, however natural it would be to a civil servant or a military man. Lawyers usually learn a decided and clear way of utterance, without which, indeed, their verbosity would be intolerable; and if Mr. Bancroft has copied a certain living lawyer, he cannot justify himself by having followed an entirely exceptional type. Worthy of high praise are, on the other hand, his picturesque acting in the difficult first portion of the play, his make-up in both scenes, and the point he gives to the droll thoughts of the author, as the denunciation of the sycamore which Spreadbrow planted himself, and the defence of age: “What constitutes youth? A head of hair? Not at all; I was as bald as an egg at five-and-twenty – babies are always bald. Eye-sight? Some people are born blind. Years? Years are an arbitrary impertinence. Am I an old man or you an old woman because the earth contrives to hurry round the sun in 365 days? Why, Saturn can’t do it in 30 years. If I had been born on Saturn, I should be two years old.”

Great expectations were entertained as to Mrs. Bancroft’s “Nan” in Good for Nothing, in which she has not been seen for 13 years. Most people in their recollection of her great success in this little piece, which Mr. Buckstone wrote for the Haymarket in the year of the first Exhibition, Mrs. Fitzwilliam then playing the heroine, omitted to take account of the fact that, good as Nan’s part is, some excellent opportunities fall also to Tom Dibbles, the gardener, a part which Mr. Cecil, after his Sam Gerridge in Caste, naturally played with great ease and with the fullest possible effect. It was originally Mr. Buckstone’s, but even that fine low comedian was probably not better in the character of a modern working man than is Mr. Cecil. Mrs. Bancroft was admirable in the scene in which the hoyden, a petite Fadette taught her deficiencies by love, metamorphoses herself into a pleasant village maiden with cherry-coloured ribands, and turns out to be far from good for nothing.


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