Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

The Vicar of Bray

Opening Night Review

This review of the opening night of The Vicar of Bray ran in the London Times on Friday, January 29, 1892.

The experiment of reviving a comic opera has always been held to involve a good deal of risk, for there is no form of entertainment that so quickly loses what charm it may have possessed; even the most meritorious and popular operettas, that at their first production have drawn the town for months together, have generally proved but moderately attractive when brought out again. It is all the more strange, therefore, that the clever manager of one of the most popular theatres in London should have decided to reproduce a work which at its first appearance gained no remarkable degree of success; in fact, the only conceivable motive for its revival would seem to be the fame which both its author and composer have since won by other and better works.

When The Vicar of Bray first saw the light, at the Globe Theatre in 1882, there were several features in it that had decided novelty; the most important was, of course, the introduction of clergymen upon the scene, not as personages gravely to be admired, but as figures more or less directly comic. The innovation, with the topical allusions to the then new Church and Stage Guild, was calculated to tickle the palates of the audience, even if it scandalized an important section of the public; still, it did not suffice to give the piece a lasting success.

The run of The Private Secretary changed the views even of the most serious playgoers, and it may be remarked in passing that the clerical functions of the Rev. Robert Spalding were judiciously kept altogether out of sight, as indeed they were in the case of The Sorcerer.

Cynthia (Miss Rowe) and The Curate (Mr. Pounds)
In the work by Messrs. Grundy and Solomon, revived last night, the sudden change in the vicar's theological views is one of the mainsprings of such plot as the piece possesses, and, of course, is what justifies the title. The other literary allusion, to "Sandford and Merton," is almost confined to the naming of the principal male characters; in fact, very little indeed is made of either witticism, though the point of the title has been heightened by the painting of an elaborate scene from the actual village of Bray, and by the occasional occurrence of the traditional tune. The transformation of Mr. Barlow from a Low to a High Churchman, and the engagement of his daughter Winifred (the Dorothy of the original production) to Thomas Merton, interrupt only for the required time the loves of the young lady and the Rev. Harry Sandford, her father's meek and voluble curate (a part originally played by Mr. Penley).

Merton, who has dressed a number of his companions as huntsmen, in order to impress Winifred, ultimately pairs off with a more congenial person, Miss Nelly Bly, a dancing girl, who, with her theatrical associates, has come to the village on a kind of topsy-turvy mission. The dialogue, which has undergone a good deal of revision, contains numerous "topical" hits, for example, on the Jackson case, which are, of course, turned to the fullest account by the Savoy company; and full justice is in like manner done to the music, which for the most part is not in Mr. Solomon's happiest vein.

Mr. Barrington succeeds the late Mr. W.J. Hill as the vicar, and, of course, plays the part with his usual unction; Mr. Courtice Pounds appears to advantage as Sandford, Mr. Richard Green is a vigorous and hearty Merton, and Mr. Denny scarcely as droll as usual in the part of the solicitor. Miss Lenore Snyder sings the music of Winifred with considerable charm; Miss Mary Duggan, as Nelly Bly, dances well, and sings as well as can be expected, in a part curiously alien to the traditions of the theatre.

The ladies of the ballet appear on the village green in their theatrical costumes; this might readily be forgiven if these costumes were of any conceivable date, but, as it is, the ugly bodices of 1830, the period to which the piece has somewhat unnecessarily been transferred, are associated with dancing of the modern full-skirted order. The clerical fashions of the early half of the century have not been copied, though the chorus of lady teachers and the school children are prettily and correctly attired.

The first "hit" of the piece was the solicitor's song, which is full of personal allusions, among which the reference to the judge who affects ignorance of slang and other branches of ordinarily knowledge in the lines

"For the lady unborn
"Is not such a greenhorn
"As the octogenarian judge"
is obviously a recent addition to the piece.

In the first number encored, the duet between the vicar and Mrs. Merton, Miss Rosina Brandram, was excellent; her return to the company is a great advantage, though the non-appearance of Miss Jessie Bond must injure the success of the piece. Nelly Bly's song, which is to be distinguished by a very close observer from the music-hall type, was also encored; and in the second act the same compliment was bestowed on the song on the Jackson case, excellently sung by Mr. Barrington, the second duet for the elderly lovers, the duet for Winifred and the travelled and unfrocked Sandford, and the most successful number, the pas de cinq, in which the vicar is persuaded to take the part of an absent member of the corps de ballet. In this Mr. Barrington naturally finds a splendid opportunity of exhibiting his famous power of combining feats of agility with a perfectly sedate expression.

The opening chorus of each of the two acts is pretty; the vicar's song, in which the now inevitable bassoon passage duly occurs, and in the refrain of which the children's voices are of value, is decidedly taking, and many bright and tuneful songs are to be found, though the work can hardly be regarded as a satisfactory successor to The Nautch Girl. It was warmly received.

This review was submitted to the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive by Cliff Coles.

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