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British Musical Theatre   The Shop Girl

Enter Musical Comedy

by W. Macqueen-Pope.

from "Gaiety, Theatre of Enchantment", W. H. Allen, London, 1949

The Shop Girl was written by H. J. W. Dam, an author new to the Gaiety. The music was by Ivan Caryll (whose real name was Tilkins, and who was a Belgian). He was also the new conductor for the Gaiety. There were additional numbers by Adrian Ross and Lionel Monckton, who was shortly to be recognised as musical comedy composer number one and to write so much lovely melody for the Gaiety and elsewhere. It was produced by James T. Tanner, but the eye of Edwardes was that which controlled it all. Not that Tanner was not first rate; he was, but the final word, as always, lay with "The Guv'nor," as everyone now called Edwardes.

The Shop Girl was described as a musical farce. Its first act was laid in "The Royal Stores," and its second at a Fancy Dress Bazaar, at Kensington. The acting manager of the Gaiety then, and for a long time to come, was Edward Marshall.

The people in the show, especially the newcomers, are worthy of attention. Some are already familiar. George Grossmith, Junr., son of George Grossmith, of Savoy Opera fame, made his Gaiety debut in this, the first musical comedy. He was quite unique in his own way, and as the years went on became one of the great pillars of the Gaiety, and a pivot in the team which made it so famous during the end of the last and the early years of this century. He will bulk largely later. For the moment it is only necessary to welcome him and to observe that his part was "One of the Boys"—the forerunner of the "Knuts"—a rôle which he never really forsook.

Colin Coop was a good actor and an excellent singer, and Frank Wheeler became the big man of the African Theatre in due course. Robert Nainby, that dapper little fellow and fine character actor, who specialised in peppery foreigners, was to be another Gaiety regular whose name will be met again in these pages. He died only very recently—in 1948. Willie Warde, too, was an old Gaiety hand.

Edmund Payne now emerges as chief comedian. This grand little man made his first appearance on the stage at Market Harborough, in 1880, as Man Friday, in Robinson Crusoe. He played in stock, toured, joined the Milton—Rays, succeeding the late George Stone (another Gaiety favourite), and then made his first London appearance at the Gaiety as Mephistopheles in the revival of Faust Up—to—Date. His whole career led to the Gaiety and the greater—by far the greater part of it was spent there. He was there in Faust Up—to—Date, and made a big hit in In Town, playing Shrimp, the Call Boy. He stayed at the Gaiety until 1913, at the end of the run of The Sunshine Girl.

Payne was a little man with a very funny face, with which he could work wonders. There was an air of surprise about him, and his eyes were rather of the " pop " variety. A real funny man who was never vulgar, he could both sing and dance, and was a very hard and conscientious worker. Everything about him was neat, and this reflected in his work. His hair was worn straight across his forehead, rather like Phil May, and his mouth was large and mobile. His greatest asset was his lisp. It gave a perfect character to the lovable little men he always impersonated, and what might have been a drawback to other actors was a tower of strength to him.

Payne had many peculiarities. For instance, he always rehearsed in a pair of velvet shoes (or shoes covered in velvet). He was always word perfect by the first rehearsal, though when given his part he would weigh it carefully on the palm of his hand, and if it seemed to him a bit light, he would gaze around with an air of surprised doubt and remonstrance. He was of a careful disposition and not given to extravagance or gay living. Quite the reverse. If he allowed himself a little festivity after a successful first night, and they were mostly successful, he would go to Gow's, the famous restaurant in the Strand with the true Dickensian flavour about it, and there he would celebrate with a real blow—out of two sausages and a bottle of Guinness! If he offered the hospitality of a drink, it was nearly always prefaced by the statement that he himself was going to have a "bitter." Living in Stoke Newington, near Clissold Park, he rode to and from the Gaiety on a bicycle, sometimes a tricycle. When he died, in 1914, at the early age of forty—nine, he left £21,657, a very nice fortune in those days, for salaries then, even at the Gaiety, were not what they are now. Today he would have been in the £400—a—week class. Teddy Payne, as everyone called him, was a universal favourite and a very great comedian.

Adelaide Astor, who later married George Grossmith, Junr., was sister of Letty Lind. In the list of small—part ladies appears the name of Fanny Ward. Later, that name was spelt Fannie. She became a star, and is still here today. Born in America, she had appeared in New York as quite a child. But on the occasion of her first appearance on the London stage, at the first night of The Shop Girl, she had one line only to speak: "Watch for my wink." They did, and it was worth watching for when it came. She was very lovely, especially in a Principal Boy's costume which she wore in the second act. Her mouth was of great beauty. It was just like a tiny rosebud. Topsy Sinden, another of the girls, had a solo dance in The Shop Girl, and performed delight—fully in many succeeding Edwardes shows. She was a great and justly popular favourite.

The Shop Girl, the new departure in the entertainment line, was a huge success. The critics were somewhat amazed that the author had provided quite a coherent story, for there had been no story at all in burlesque. The Shop Girl plot concerned a good-hearted millionaire who, rich beyond the dreams of avarice himself, had come back to London to look for the daughter of his chum of the mining camps, to whom a fortune of the quite respectable sum of four million pounds was due. The millionaire, in full evening dress, with a cape lined with scarlet, told us his story in song: how he had gone out in the steerage of a liner, to become a miner, and how he had struck it rich in Colorado. It was a good song and well sung by Colin Coop. The daughter was, of course, Bessie Brent, the shop girl, who had already given her hand and heart to a gay but impecunious young medical student of good family, played by Seymour Hicks.

That astute young man had persuaded Edwardes to depart from the old tradition of sentimental lovers, with long ballads and duets, and to make the juvenile lead young and sprightly—in fact, just the sort of character he could play himself to absolute perfection. If he had not succeeded too well when playing in Little lack Sheppard, because of the shadow of the great Fred Leslie which hid him by its memory, he made a great success now. More than a success—a triumph. And his chief song became a classic, one of the popular songs of all time. It was " Her golden hair was hanging down her back." An instantaneous success, it was being sung and whistled all over the country within a few days of his singing it at this first night. Hicks had imported it from America, a fact which may surprise many people, who imagine that it is only just recently that we have been taking song—hits from over there. Nor was he even the first to sing it here, but it was he who made it successful. He had heard it sung in a New York music hall by a woman, who rendered it with great sedateness, and thus stressed the possible arrival of a double entendre, which, however, never materialised—but there was always the hope. Many people today will remember the chorus:

"Oh, Flo! what a change you know
When she left the village she was shy
  But, alas and alack,
She came back,
With a naughty little twinkle in her eye."

Seymour sang it superbly. He was even then, at the age of twenty—two or three, a real imp of mischief. And that love of laughter and fun never left him, for he was the wittiest man in London. He was always playing tricks on the stage. Ada Reeve, a little overawed at being at the Gaiety, was desperately afraid of him, and he used to rag her unmercifully. Once, in a duet they had, in which she was supposed to be a nursemaid wheeling a pram in the Park, she wore a very long skirt. She was afraid that one day the wheel would catch in the skirt, and then the only way to save the skirt from coming off would be to fall down. She warned Seymour, which was a very foolish thing to do, for he saw the opportunity of a gorgeous joke and took it. Over went poor Ada, and as she lay prone, he wheeled the pram over her and made a triumphant exit to roars of laughter.

But Ada Reeve remembers something else about Seymour Hicks. Many years had passed since they had played in The Shop Girl. She was starring for a season in a big Canadian city, and one day saw the bills go up at an opposition theatre, announcing Seymour Hicks in The Man in Dress Clothes. Her name, too, was prominent on posters all over the town, and she wondered if he would remember. On the night following the arrival of the Hicks' company, she went down to her theatre. The temperature was well below zero. But at her stage door was an enormous bunch of the most exquisite red roses, with a card, "To Bessie Brent, from Charles Appleby," the names of the characters she and Seymour Hicks had played in The Shop Girl. Seymour had remembered—and that was just like him, too.

Both the sets and all the costumes in The Shop Girl .were sumptuous, and the girls looked their loveliest in them. There was a Japanese dance for Edmund Payne and Katie Seymour which was entrancing, and a fine solo from Topsy Sinden. There was also a fascinating Pierrot and Pierrette number. Edmund Payne made a sensational success and became an instant favourite with the Gaiety—goers. Arthur Williams was good, too, although one or two gags did not please at all. They came out. Ada Reeve had a triumph: her vivacity and attack, learned by long experience and on the halls, carried her audience away. Cairns James, that fine old actor and Savoyard, must have a mention, for he never gave a bad performance in his life. In later years, as professor of the Comedy Class at the Guildhall School of Music, he turned out many stars, including the last Gaiety comedian, Leslie Henson, and such people as Reginald Denham and Robertson Hare. He was that very rare being, a man who could really teach acting. He died only recently, an old man in years but young in heart, and loved by all.

George Grossmith, Junr., also made a very distinct hit as a "Masher," or as "One of the Boys," as they were called, a type in which he was pre—eminent and never outgrew, although his dashing blades mellowed as he did: but so far as his stage creations went, the heart was always young and the eye keen for a pretty girl and adventure. Even Mr. William Archer approved of The Shop Girl, although he waxed sarcastic at its enthusiastic welcome, and commented on the disapproval with which some of the doubtful lines were received. Actually, that sort of thing had been usual in burlesque and had never been resented before, but The Shop Girl had a different atmosphere, and the public were quick to re—act. It was the first time that such a criticism had ever been levelled at the Gaiety, and Edwardes took care to see that the offending lines were altered. Edmund Payne, as Miggles, was always in some sort of trouble, and then he was at his best. To see him faced with calamity and to watch him struggle to avoid his fate, was the very zenith of comic acting and art. It was, despite the protesting "Oh's" at the occasional indelicacies, an evening of complete triumph for all concerned.

Musical comedy was born, a new lamp was kindled at the Gaiety, and a new era had begun with acclamation. The Shop Girl ran for 546 performances—a Gaiety record up to that time. There was no doubt that the public wanted musical comedy. It added a new zest to life.

As the run went on, songs were constantly changed and new business frequently introduced, for George Edwardes had great faith in "new editions." There were changes in cast, too, the most important being when Ada Reeve left—for domestic reasons which resulted in a daughter—and Ellaline Terriss took over the part with, of course, immense success. She had a new song, "Louisiana Lou," by a composer new to London, whose name was Leslie Stuart.

And now for two more little Shop Girl stories, often told by Sir Seymour Hicks.

Ivan Caryll, the Belgian composer—conductor, had got together a magnificent orchestra for the Gaiety. It contained one English player only, and he was always referred to as "the foreigner!"

And about the Girls. They were, at times, inclined to chatter amongst themselves on the stage, if they thought the stage manager was not looking. This chatter was most frequent on a Monday night, when thrilling news of the week—end was new and fresh. One night one of the girls, a bad offender in this talking respect, was regaling her immediate neighbours with a good week—end story whilst Seymour Hicks was singing. So carried away was she that she got well above the usual "stage whisper." Hicks said " S'sh " severely several times, but she took no notice, and in the end the noise she made drove the words he had to sing right out of his head. But Seymour was always resourceful, and determined to give her a shock which she would never forget, he suddenly said, "One moment, please," to the conductor, who, very surprised, brought the orchestra to a stop. There was silence as Hicks turned to the gabbling girl and said, "Dear lady, will you finish your story or shall I finish my song?" The girl, so far from being scared, was quite unabashed. She replied at once, "Do you know, dearie, it's a matter of the utmost indifference to me what you do." Hicks collapsed—for once—and the audience roared its head off. However, discipline was brought to bear, and the girl did not offend again.

The Shop Girl ran its long and merry course. Everyone went to the Gaiety. Now, more than ever before, it became the brightest place in London and, what is more, going there became a habit. People went, time and again. The Girls, now creatures of femininity and allure, were the eagerly sought prizes of the young men about town; but they knew their value. The stage door was thronged. Tierney was kept busier than he had ever been, coping with the bouquets, notes, presents and messages. But nobody ever got by him. The Gaiety Girl, who had formed the subject of a musical show already, was now a part of London's life, and a most treasured thing at that. The true greatness of the Gaiety of the more modern generation had begun. The Shop Girl put the Gaiety Girl on top of the world. And The Gaiety Girl, in a show at the Prince of Wales's, had been played by a girl who had been one, Maud Hobson, and the comedian was clever Harry Monkhouse, also of the Gaiety.

The Shop Girl brought fame to all in it. Ivan Caryll, with his square—cut beard and his big, twirling moustache, was on top of the world. And Lionel Monckton had his foot on the ladder of fame. Adrian Ross had taken another step higher at the Gaiety as lyric writer—his lyrics got good notices—and George Edwardes was beaming because, once more, he had been right.

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