Marking a century with Gilbert greats

Spy caricature of Richard 'Corney' Grain
Spy caricature of Richard 'Corney' Grain

AFTER an initial foray this week with one-act drama The Hooligan, the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton presents seven more centennial Gilbert-related events over five days starting next Thursday.

Four are talks, one a centenary luncheon and there are two further stage works, beginning with Foggerty’s Fairy on next Friday next week, “An Entirely Original Fairy Farce” in three acts, penned in 1881. It could also be called an early work of science fiction.

The complex plot involves a man called Frederick Foggerty who enlists the help of a fairy to change a small event in his past so that he can marry the girl he loves with results that are far worse than he bargained for.

The play’s suggestion of a parallel universe, while being old hat now, was unprecedented at the time but it opened to fairly favourable audience and critical reception on December 15.

Indeed, having heard that it was so “brilliantly successful,” the drama critic of The Illustrated London News decided to delay reviewing it until after “the feverish pantomimic Boxing Night week,” because it “will probably have a very long run.”

“I hear the ‘Fairy’ spoken of on all sides as one of the wittiest and as the most ingenious and daring of Mr Gilbert’s dramatic productions.”

He never did review it – it closed on January 6 1882 after 25 performances.

It still gets occasional outings but Gilbert deemed it a failure and went back to writing operas with Sullivan.

One of the characters in it is Malvina de Vere, “a stately lady of middle age” who has become wealthy through having had 18 lovers, all of whom she sued in breach of promise lawsuits when they left her.

A familiar line is used to describe her in the play: “having the remains of a fine woman about her”, which neatly introduces Gilbert’s musical play Our Island Home, written for the German Reeds in 1870, which has an outing on August 14.

This has a character in it called Captain Bang, a pirate chief whose deaf nurse apprenticed him as a pirate, instead of a pilot! He also has a keen sense of duty, has never seen a woman and a 21st birthday that frees him from his indentures – sound familiar?

Frederic and The Pirates of Penzance were still nine years away and HMS Pinafore eight, but spot Sir Joseph Porter and Captain Corcoran when he sings:

I’m a hardy sailor, too;

I’ve a vessel and a crew

When it doesn’t blow a gale

I can reef a little sail.

I never go below

And I generally know

The weather from the lee,

And I’m never sick at sea.

The role was one of the first to be played by Richard ‘Corney’ Grain, a large man with extremely large but expressive hands, who like Gilbert had briefly been a barrister and was shortly to become a popular entertainer and songwriter – stage name Corney Grain.

The son of a farmer, John Grain, because of his comical appearance, Gilbert subsequently asked him to play “the handsomest man in the world” and the “spirit of romance” in two of his further musical plays for the family-friendly entertainments of Thomas and Priscilla German Reed in the small theatre at the Gallery of Illustration.

Our Island Home was the third of the six he penned and Reed himself wrote the music for the seven musical numbers in the piece, set on an island in the Indian Ocean where four people have been dumped and disadvantageously divided it into quarters, prior to Captain Bang appearing.