The biggest success of the theatre’s first years was a four-month season by British husband and wife stars Dion Boucicault Jr and Irene Vanbrugh, beginning on 21 July. Their repertoire, which occasionally echoed that of the old Brough–Boucicault company, included plays by Pinero, A.A. Milne and Frederick Lonsdale—notably a first Australian production of Lonsdale’s On Approval on 20 October.
The arrival of sound films and the imminent Great Depression made 1929 the first of several patchy years. But the attractions included seasons by the reigning imported dramatic favourite Leon Gordon, English actor Lewis Shaw starring in John Van Druten’s then sensational Young Woodley, and a short revival of Sweet Nell of Old Drury with the beloved Nellie Stewart.
Spanish-American comic actor Leo Carrillo interrupted the beginning of a busy Hollywood career to star in Lombardi Limited from 29 February 1930. This ran until mid April when Nellie Stewart, together with her daughter Nancye and son-in-law Mayne Lynton, starred in Edward Sheldon’s Romance. 1930 also saw seasons by English actor William Faversham and American actress Edith Taliaferro. The Firm was not too proud to refuse a six-night lease for the Victorian Amateur Boxing and Wrestling Championships early in September either. But the longest running single attraction of the period was St. John Irvine’s play, The First Mrs Fraser, which notched up 67 performances from 26 December—a very good run for the times.
Gregan McMahon and his repertory players first came to the Comedy on 17 March 1931. McMahon, who also directed more commercial fare for The Firm, had entered into an arrangement for the use of their theatres when they fell vacant and his group were frequent occupants of the Comedy throughout the 1930s. Their first offering was a comedy called Yellow Sands which featured McMahon and rising local actress Coral Brown(e). This was followed by Galsworthy’s The Roof. Each play ran for five nights.
British actor Frank Harvey in a couple of Edgar Wallace thrillers interspersed with Galsworthy’s Loyalties held the stage for two months from 4 April 1931 and returned for another month in September. Prior to this came a short run of the comedy A Warm Corner, whose cast included Ethel Morrison, Cecil Kellaway, Campbell Copelin and Coral Brown(e), who also supported Harvey in his later season.
Nellie Bramley and her company, with their policy of weekly change popular drama, came to the Comedy on 26 March 1932 but transferred to the Palace after three weeks, leaving the theatre dark—apart from short runs by McMahon’s Players—for the rest of that year. 1933 was equally bleak, beginning with a couple of transfers from the King’s, including a fortnight of the Athene Seyler–Nicholas Hannen season from 15 April. A short-lived Ben Travers farce, A Bit of a Test, followed this but for the rest of the year the theatre was used only by amateurs.
1934 brought some improvement, with the Melbourne premiere of Ivor Novello’s Fresh Fields on 18 May. Then came a popular thriller, Ten Minute Alibi, followed by a light comedy, The Wind and the Rain. Both of these starred Englishman George Thirlwell and Australia’s Jocelyn Howarth in a run totalling fourteen weeks from 25 August. The Russian Ballet, transferring from the King’s, ended the year with a week-long run from Christmas Eve.
A trio of modern comedies got 1935 off to a moderate start but other offerings petered out by early April and returned only fitfully towards the end of the year. From 11 January 1936 The Firm bowed to the inevitable and reopened the Comedy as a cinema screening first releases and revivals, beginning with a British double bill comprising The Constant Nymph and Man of Aran.
This policy continued over the next three years with only occasional interruptions for live attractions. Notable plays and players in this period were a month long run of Emlyn Williams’ thriller, Night Must Fall, from 15 February 1936; famous American impressionist Ruth Draper in a series of character sketches for a month from 16 May 1938; British silent film star Betty Balfour in a comedy called Personal Appearance for a fortnight from 20 August 1938; another month-long run for a thriller called Black Limelight from 8 April 1939; and American stage and screen actor Ian Keith in Libel during August 1939. It was also in this year that the bronze plaque honouring George Coppin was installed in the Comedy’s foyer. Unveiled by his daughter Lucy on 26 March, it was dedicated to ‘The Hon. George Selth Coppin, Philanthropist and Father of the Theatre in Victoria’.
The Comedy switched to foreign film revivals in March 1940 but from 14 September British actress Marie Ney was starred in the thriller Ladies in Retirement for six weeks; she returned from the King’s for the last three weeks of Private Lives on 23 December. Also notable in 1940 was a two-night debut season by the Borovansky Australian Ballet Company on 9 and 10 December—the very first presentation of ballet in Australia by a locally nurtured company.
March–April 1941 saw the last seasons by the Gregan McMahon Players. McMahon himself died only a few months later in August—but immediately following came a fresh lease of life for the Comedy when JCW entered into an arrangement with David N. Martin to present a series of plays from his Minerva Theatre in Sydney. These began with Room for Two, a comedy starring Marjorie Gordon and Hal Thompson, which ran for a month from 12 April 1941. This was followed by another comedy, Susan and God, which also starred Gordon, and ran for a then record 228 performances from 17 May.
Polished British actor Edwin Styles was the resident star for almost a year from 4 April 1942, beginning in the comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner, which ran for 161 performances. This was followed by Robert’s Wife, a comedy drama by St. John Irvine, Daphne Du Maurier’s romantic drama Rebecca, and Robert Sherwood’s romantic comedy, Reunion in Vienna. These and other Minerva attractions employed such rising or established local talents as Dick Bentley, Aileen Britten, Letty Craydon, Keith Eden, Claude Flemming, Sheila Helpman(n), Lloyd Lamble, Hal Lashwood, John McCallum, Muriel Steinbeck and Bettina Welch.
The classic black farce Arsenic and Old Lace was the first fresh attraction of 1943, and was followed by the comedy My Sister Eileen and Lillian Hellman’s drama, Watch on the Rhine. On 12 November came a second, month long season by the Borovansky Ballet and, from 11 December, Kiss and Tell. This very successful F. Hugh Herbert comedy had run close to 200 performances when it was ‘suspended until further notice’ by an Actors Equity strike on 26 March 1944. This was the first major industrial action taken by actors in Australia and was resolved after three weeks with victory for the strikers and the adoption of compulsory union membership for the profession. Kiss and Tell resumed on 10 June 1944 and went on to establish an all-time record for a straight play at the Comedy, with a run of 414 performances.
Edwin Styles returned for another long stay on 23 December 1944 in The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse, which ran until 11 April 1945 and was followed by Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit which played even more successfully, until 7 September. A short break from the middlebrow, mostly lightweight fare now familiar at the Comedy came on 5 April 1946 when The Firm presented Doris Fitton and her Independent Theatre company from Sydney in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. All thirteen acts of this American adaptation of classic Greek tragedy were played out for twelve nights between 6.30 pm. and 11 pm, with a twenty-minute interval at 8 pm.
Australian-based international stage stars Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott opened at the Comedy on 17 August 1946 in three Noël Coward one-acters, Ways and Means, Family Album and Shadow Play and played profitably until 14 December. Following them came the Kiwis, an all-male New Zealand wartime concert party company formed in Egypt in 1941. Now sponsored by The Firm, the Kiwis opened on 20 December 1946 in Alamein, the first of three fast moving revues. On 16 August 1947 this was replaced by a second revue called Tripoli and on 10 January 1948 came Benghazi. On the following 20 November came a ‘farewell’—a compendium of all three shows—which ran until 6 January 1949. In total the Kiwis played for a phenomenal 867 consecutive performances—an all-time record for an individual attraction at the Comedy.
Plays returned on 8 January 1949 with Garson Kanin’s comedy, Born Yesterday, followed by a London success, Fly Away Peter, then an American farce called Separate Rooms. All these did well but the stellar highlight of the year was British comic actor Robert Morley opposite Sophie Stewart in his own play, Edward, My Son, from 2 December—the first of Morley’s many successful Australian visits.
After this came the Australian premiere of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire on 18 February 1950—appropriately enough a summer night of overpowering heat in the as yet un-airconditioned Comedy. American actor Arthur Franz starred as Stanley Kowalski in this rare venture by JCW into serious modern American drama which paid off with a run of more than three months.
Not quite as successful was Harvey, the American comedy that followed, despite the presence of famed wide-mouthed American film comedian Joe E. Brown. From 12 August The Firm took another gamble with a Doris Fitton production—an American musical fantasy called Dark of the Moon. Some six weeks later this made way for the hit of the year, the R.F. Delderfield wartime farce, Worm’s Eye View, which ran exactly six months from 30 September with British immigrants William Hodge and Gordon Chater in the casts.
British husband and wife stars Evelyn Laye and Frank Lawton began a four month season on 12 May 1951 in Daphne Du Maurier’s September Tide and John Van Druten’s Bell, Book and Candle, F. Hugh Herbert’s comedy, The Moon is Blue, which followed, had a reputation for raciness at the time but was only moderately well received during its ten weeks from 14 September.
From 5 December 1951 the Comedy housed its first ever Shakespearian season when John Alden’s Australian company arrived with a repertoire beginning and ending with King Lear, which ran until 29 March 1952. The hit show of that year was Seagulls Over Sorrento, a farce by Australian author Hugh Hastings, which brought back William Hodge as star and chalked up 221 performances from 5 April, The Kiwis also returned after this and their two new revues again did excellent business, with a combined run of over six months to 24 April 1953.
Frederick Knott’s Dial M For Murder, gripped Comedy audiences for four months from 30 April and although Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, which came next, closed after five weeks, a third William Hodge hit followed this: Reluctant Heroes, another services farce, running seven months to 5 May 1954. The rest of that year saw Dear Charles, a comedy with Sophie Stewart and Clement McCallin, doing well with a run of over five months. But a revival of White Cargo and a new Australian play, Pommy (again with Bill Hodge) did poorly and the end of the year saw Hodge in the perennial Charley’s Aunt.
On 12 February 1955 Googie Withers and John McCallum made their first duo appearance in Australia in a comedy called Simon and Laura. They followed this on 14 May with Terence Rattigan’s drama, The Deep Blue Sea, ending this first of their many successful Comedy seasons on 9 July. A couple of American comedies that failed to draw preceded what many considered the artistic highlight of the year—Judith Anderson in her American success, Medea, on 20 December—the first presentation at the Comedy by the recently formed Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT).
Sailor Beware, another services farce, held the Comedy stage between 18 January and 5 May 1956 and on 12 June came a second AETT drama season lasting nine weeks, the highlight of which was a revival of the original production of Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll with Lawler himself in the cast. British husband and wife Roger Livesey and Ursula Jeans starred in William Douglas Home’s comedy The Reluctant Debutante for over five months from 25 August 1956 while 4 February 1957 brought another successful expatriate, Leo McKern in The Rainmaker—although the play itself failed to please.
Nor did Janus the comedy which followed, despite the presence of British star Jessie Matthews, nor the next, Double Image, a thriller with British actor Emrys Jones. Although only introduced late in 1956, the popularity of television was already taking effect and the days of four or five month runs for often routine plays were coming to an end.
Another AETT presentation arrived on 23 July 1957: British actor Paul Rogers in Vanburgh’s The Relapse, and Hamlet, with a local cast including Zoe Caldwell as Ophelia, which played alternate weeks until 28 August. Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden, with the distinguished Dame Sybil Thorndike and Sir Lewis Casson, ran for over three months from 31 August. Not so fortunate for The Firm was a prize-winning local play, The Multi Coloured Umbrella, which had been a success when first produced at the Little Theatre but closed here after three weeks.
An undisputed money-spinner was Luisillo and his Spanish Dance Theatre, beginning the first of several Comedy seasons on 11 March 1958. On 22 April another Australian play sponsored by the AETT, Richard Benyon’s The Shifting Heart was well received prior to a London production, with an eight week run to 18 June. Eight-week runs were also scored by expatriate star Robert Helpmann in Noël Coward’s Nude with Violin and Edwin Styles and Sophie Stewart in Not In the Book. The end of the year brought For Amusement Only, an English revue starring rising locals Toni Lamond, Tikki Taylor, John Newman and Frank Sheldon.
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was revived for five weeks from 31 January 1959 and was followed by Googie Withers and John McCallum (now also The Firm’s assistant managing director) in Roar Like a Dove for nine weeks. John Alden’s Shakespeare company also returned on 12 June, with Scottish actor John Laurie as King Lear the highlight of the season, and on 12 September came the premiere of Ray Lawler’s new play, The Piccadilly Bushman. This failed to repeat the success of The Doll during its eight week run and the end of year attractions were British husband and wife Muriel Pavlow and Derek Farr in The Gazebo and Odd Man In for a total of three months to 23 February 1960.
In his autobiography, Life with Googie, John McCallum recalls working at the Comedy about this time in a ‘near-perfect set-up…for running a theatre circuit. Head office was on the second floor...with the Accounts department above it and Publicity below. Across the road was the flagship of the circuit, Her Majesty’s Theatre, behind which were the workshops and paint-frames, rehearsal rooms, wardrobe, laundry and dry cleaning, scene dock and stores... And so it was possible, in the course of a few minutes’ walk, to check on the exact state of any production in preparation.’
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To be continued