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British theatre has always been a vibrant medium attracting exceptional individuals whether in the form of performers, directors, critics or writers.  The British theatre scene in the first half of the twentieth century was in exciting flux as the popular Victorian forms of entertainment gradually lost their appeal.  George Robey, ‘The Prime Minister of Mirth’, perfectly encapsulated this change.  Having enjoyed an absolute command of the music-hall audience, Robey, with shrewd versatility, adapted to the demands of revue, musical comedy, operetta, straight plays and films.  A good friend of James Agate, with whom he would reminisce in his later years, Robey was considered by Agate ‘our national comic genius’.  Agate, a, if not the, pre-eminent theatre critic of his time, was more than capable of dishing out both favourable and unfavourable reviews to the many actors and playwrights who brightened London’s stages.    

Robey would grow old at the same time as the impresario Charles B. Cochran and in 1943 performed, with his old-time partner Violet Loraine, in Seventy Years of Song, a pageant organised at the Royal Albert Hall by Cochran.  Robey and Loraine’s song, ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World’, was the most popular song of the night.  At that same pageant, Ivor Novello would again perform his 1914 hit ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’.  A genius at musical comedies, Novello was discouraged by Agate, ‘What the modern generation apparently wants is plenty of hot music and transatlantic rhythm.’, from putting on Perchance To Dream, which would enjoy the longest unbroken run enjoyed by any Novello show and which would produce the popular song ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’.  Agate, the great critic, despised musical comedies and, at one point, Novello even suggested to Agate that he, Novello, should write to Agate’s editor and ask them ‘”…not to send charming Mr Agate, whom we all adore, to musical pieces which he dislikes and doesn’t understand?”’.

Emlyn Williams refused to meet with Agate at the first night of The Corn Is Green, taking the prudent view that actors should not mingle with critics on a social basis, but he was no more immune to Agate’s writings than any other actor or playwright of the time.  Agate proved very capable of complimenting and insulting Emlyn in the same review, illustrated in his piece on The Light of Heart: 'His talent, as I see it, is not for playwriting, but for depicting the Skiffinses of today, which he does admirably.  Too admirably.  His gift for eking out plays with amusing minor characters means that he needn’t bother about his major drama, and he doesn’t.' 

In order to create a theatrical atmosphere in The Light of Heart, Emlyn sprinkled mentions of Cochran, amongst other famous figures of the time, but only after he had asked for Cochran’s permission.  Flattered and charmed, the impresario gave it, remarking that he was proud to be associated with a play by Emlyn but only on condition that the character depicted was not 'an absolute bastard'.  Notably, both Cochran and Emlyn would have the honour of having premature obituaries published about them, although not at the same time.          

It would be Cochran who would discover the audacious Tallulah Bankhead and, despite Gerald du Maurier initially casting someone else for the part of Maxine in The Dancers, help her gain the role that would make her a star.  With or without an actress as stunning as Tallulah, however, Du Maurier, the most naturally gifted actor of his time, could draw in the audiences with his sometimes exquisite performances.  His performance in Interference was described, by none other than Agate, as 'infinite pleasure.  But that would be to speak loosely.  His acting last night gave one pleasure of a finite, definite, almost concrete sort.  You could pin down, and nail to the counter, each and every one of its many admirable qualities – vigour, ease, precision, attack, balance.  He did what only an actor of extreme accomplishment could have done; he remained ten minutes alone on the stage without speaking.'  

 

Other Sources of Information
The V&A has informative pages on its website and often runs exhibitions based around the theatre.
 
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