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While planning his new comedy, On Guard, Mr. Gilbert manifestly traced a clear simple outline, which he afterwards, to some extent, obliterated by mere exuberance of dialogue. His moral is pointed against the fashionable sin of flirtation, and never was there a more determined flirt than Miss Jessie Blake (Miss Kate Bishop), who although she is betrothed to a military stripling, Guy Warrington (Miss M. Brennan), does her best to captivate the heart of every male guest belonging to a large party assembled at Beauclerc Castle, wherever that may be. Denis Grant (Mr. Markby), a somewhat bluff traveller, recently returned from Africa, feels the power of her charms, and, ignorant of her engagement, makes her an offer of marriage. His suit is rejected, and when he finds that the lady's legitimate admirer is Guy Warrington, who, though little more than a boy in years, has been his friend at school, he takes an entirely new position, being solicited by Guy to watch over Miss Blake, who is about to join a yachting party on the Mediterranean, and to do his best to check everything like flirtation. The favour is asked just as the young officer is about to start for Gibraltar, and we do not often see a more affecting situation than that of those two friends and schoolfellows; on the one hand the boy all ardour an jealousy, literally imploring the assistance of his elder comrade; on the other, the rough traveller, smothering his own feelings, and with bluff heartiness, promising to stand "on guard".
The second act takes place on the deck of the yacht, which is becalmed off Cadiz, and here we find Denis Grant fully employed in keeping Jessie at a convenient distance from Corny Kavanagh (Mr. A. Bishop), a somewhat unscrupulous gentleman, who prides himself on the brilliance of his repartees, and has an interested motive for seeking the hand of Miss Blake. His office is by no means light, for his interference is resented by Corny, and, at last, having learnt that the intruder is in the yacht by Jessie's invitation, he quits the vessel in despair, and seeks Guy's quarters at Gibraltar, where he nearly breaks the poor boy's heart with his evil tidings. His good intentions are, however, fully appreciated till Corny makes his appearance, and revealing to Guy the hitherto unknown fact that Denis once made an offer to Miss Blake, induces him to to believe that the traveller, instead of "guarding" his friends happiness, sought to win the lady for himself. On hearing the supposed treachery of his old schoolfellow the rage of Guy surpasses all bounds, and he not only assails Denis with a torrent of vituperation, but even threatens him with a blow, which is, of course, intercepted. The great situation of the first act thus finds a fitting pendant in the third. The boy, formerly childlike in his confidence, is now childish in his wrath; the man, conscious of his own honesty, is stung to despair at finding how completely his conduct is misinterpreted. Elder playgoers will probably be reminded of a strong situation in the Maid's Tragedy, remodelled into the Bridal. All is made right at last, even Corny himself turning out better than he promised, and putting in his good word to promote a reconciliation. Whether Guy is to be congratulated on his happiness in obtaining the hand of Miss Jessie we will not undertake to say, but it should be mentioned that when she invited Corny to join the yachting party, it was merely to oblige a female friend.
The whole interest of the piece depends on the mutual relation of the four personages above named, and had all the scenes been on a level with those in which Denis and Guy are prominent figures, On Guard would have been one of Mr. Gilbert's best works. But, unfortunately, Corny Kavanagh, being a professed wit, is compelled to show his powers of defence and offence by Mrs. Fitz Osborne (sic.) (Miss M. Oliver), a smart widow, who is always setting him down, and a drawling gentleman, who has earned the nickname of "Baby Boodle" (Mr. J. Clayton), and is his perpetual butt. Now, although Mr. Gilbert is a master of repartee, and many good things are uttered by the widow and at the expense of "Baby", these two personages have scarcely anything to do with the plot> Neither do we think that much is gained by a difficulty which arises as to Jessie's right to a certain £12,000, which brings upon the stage one Grouse, a dishonest lawyer (Mr. E. Righton), who seeks to work upon Corny as a rival claimant. In sum, all to which the title On Guard can be supposed to refer is satisfactory, while nearly all the rest appears superfluous.
The piece could not be better performed than by the company of the Court Theatre. Mr. Markby, new to the stage, cannot be termed a finished actor, but his appearance is decidedly in his favour, his power of depicting strong manly emotion is great, and even his crudity of manner is not ill-fitted to the traveller, who is supposed to have passed the greater number of his days at a distance from the civilized world. He is well contrasted by Miss M. Brennan, who as Guy is the very embodiment of boyish impetuosity, and by Mr. A. Bishop, whose easy insolence as Corny is characteristic in the highest degree. The notion of the irresistible flirt is completely realized by Miss Kate Bishop, and so perfectly is the shrewd widow represented by Miss Oliver, and the soft "Baby" by Mr. J. Clayton, whose "make-up" is marvellous, that we regret to find their talents bestowed on the least important parts of the piece.
Mr Hann's scenery, comprising the deck of a yacht, "set" with singular completeness, leaves nothing to desire.
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