Little Jack Sheppard
Gaiety Theatre, London, 26 December 1885
The 'burlesque operatic melodrama' Little Jack Sheppard, written by H. Pottinger Stephens and William Yardley, with music by Meyer Lutz and others, opened at the Gaiety Theatre, London, on 26 December 1885. It ran for 155 performances. The cast included Fred Leslie as Jonathan Wild, Nellie Farren as Jack Sheppard, David James as Blueskin, Mathilde Wadman as Thames Darrell (a fictitious character devised by W. Harrison Ainsworth for his successful novel Jack Sheppard, published in 1839), and Marion Hood as Winifred Wood. Other members of the cast were Willie Warde (who also choreographed the dances), Emily Duncan, Emily Robina, Harriet Coveney and Sylvia Grey. The chorus included Flo Henderson.
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'A burlesque of Jack Sheppard, produced at the Gaiety, is brighter than such productions ordinarily are. As it is presented by a company including such actors as Miss Nelly Farren, Miss Marion Hood, Mr. David James, and Mr. F. Leslie, it is received with much applause, and seems likely to bring once more into favour a class of production that had commenced, not undeservedly, to stink in the public nostrils.'
'Gaiety Theatre. - The Prince of Wales, accompanied by Prince George of Wales, was present at the Gaiety Theatre last night to witness, for the second time, the performance of Little Jack Sheppard.'
There are, doubtless, people who like to take their burlesque in smaller doses than those administered at the Gaiety Theatre, but if we are to have a three-ounce mixture instead of a draught, there can be no question of the exhilarating and stimulating qualities of that prescribed by those skilful practitioners, Messrs. Stephens and Yardley. To abandon medical metaphor it must be said that the new three-act "Burlesque-operatic-melodrama" (what will a play be called next?) is a very bright and amusing production, a welcome return to the best traditions of the Gaiety Theatre. It is well constructed, and the songs are particularly good, while the puns would have driven Dr. Johnson out of his mind. We know that the great man had a "general aversion to puns," possibly because the only one he is recorded to have made was, perhaps, the worst ever perpetrated, but the authors may shelter themselves behind Boswell's remark that "a good pun may be admitted among the smaller excellencies of lively conversation." Had he lived to see burlesques he would have added that puns were as sauce piquante to such productions. Very ingenious, too, is what may be called the scenic travesty of popular melodrama. Here, we have the escape of Jack Sheppard and Blueskin from prison, conducted much after the fashion of an Adelphi play with quick changes of scenery and all the elements of sensation, reproduced after a true burlesque fashion. There is no need to tell in detail how far Messrs. Stephens and Yardley have followed the traditional story of Jack Sheppard. Suffice it to say that we see the adventurous hero making love, and accompanied by the faithful Blueskin rescuing Thames Darrell from the clutches of Mr. Jonathan Oscar Wild and Sir Rowland Trenchard. We find him at one time assisting at a "free-and-easy," over which Blueskin presides, and then imprisoned in Newgate, where he conducts himself in his usual dare-devil manner, and, of course, escapes in the fashion above indicated, the burlesque ending with his happy marriage. The first act is particularly bright and pretty, the second drags a little, and compression with doubtless improve it, while the third also needs a little judicious putting together. The burlesque, however, now plays closer than it did on the first night, and is a really capital piece of extravagance. The cast is the best that has been seen in burlesque for many years. To take the ladies first, rapturous cheers welcomed Miss Farren back to the scene of her old triumphs, and the brightest burlesque actress on the stage of to-day never played with more spirit. Her principal song, "Jack's alive 'O," a very characteristic ditty, with a capital melody by Mr. Meyer Lütz, won an enthusiastic encore. Miss Marion Hood looked charming, and sang with infinite taste and feeling, her best contribution being a pretty song by Florian Pascal, "They call me the Belle of Dollis Hill." Miss Wadman's singing is also far above the average of that usually heard in burlesque and she gave "There once was a time, my darling," admirably set by Mr. Alfred Cellier, with excellent effect. These two ladies were also heard to much advantage in a fanciful and charming duet, by Mr. Hamilton Clarke, entitled, "A Fairy Tale." Times stands still with Miss Harriet Coveney, who grows younger, instead of older, each year, and she acted [the part of Mrs Sheppard] with much humour and vivacity. Misses Emily Duncan, [Bessie] Sansen, Eunice [Vance], and Sylvia Grey had little to do but look pretty, and accomplished that task without effort, the latter lady also dancing remarkably well. Mr. David James, after ten years of comedy, returns in this piece to his first love, burlesque, and is a very humorous Blueskin, giving us a genuine character sketch, and his singing of the old song, "Farewell to Old England," was received with uproarious applause. Mr. Fred Leslie is an artist, and his conception of Jonathan Wild is grotesque and comic in the extreme. Two bits of business, his cooling himself with a pinch of theatrical snow scattered over him, from a snuffbox, and his cracking his fingers in a perfectly appalling fashion, caused much mirth among the audience. A funny "Polyglot Duet," by Mr. Meyer Lütz, sung with Miss Farren, was loudly encored. Mr. [E.J.] Odell, capitally made up, was a highly effective representative of Sir Rowland Trenchard, and minor parts were well filled.
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© John Culme, 2003