Oh, Lady! Lady! in Sydney 1921 .
1921 was a year of reconstruction and re-evaluation. The war was over but change was continuing. Ireland was in turmoil and Russia was recovering from seven years of strife. In Australia the population was concerned with the Chinese, the Catholics and the plight of returned soldiers.
Archbishop Mannix was in hot water over his refusal to take the oath of allegiance to the crown. The Protestant federation condemned the attitude of the Federal government in allowing Mannix an exemption from the oath. It stated that the government was;
‘Repudiating the strong convictions of the majority of the people of the Commonwealth’
The majority of the population generally accepted this pro British attitude, although division between Protestants and Catholics, particularly in light of events in Ireland, was growing.
The Chinese gardeners were being reprimanded by anglo competitors for their long working hours. The secretary of the Sydney Market Gardeners association, Mr Tasker, wrote a long letter to the Herald chastising the Chinese for their destructive work habits. Mr Tasker’s views represented a body of opinion that mixed racism and labour politics in a skein not to be unravelled until the Whitlam government of the 1970s.
In post war Australia, the plight of returned soldiers garnered much attention. Most had been repatriated by 1919, yet they were not yet deified by the annual ANZAC day memorial services. The process was in it’s early stages however. War memorials were being built, soldiers benefit concerts being held and money for soldier’s farms was being solicited. The concern for the employment of returned soldiers was evident in the formation of the Returned Soldiers League ( RSL). The RSL had been established in 1921 and was beginning to make itself heard as a lobby group.
The effects of the war were social and economic. Women had taken jobs during the war and many were loath to resign them. The euphoria of peace infected all walks of life. Hemlines were up, and hair was short. It was the roaring 20s and a general atmosphere of licentiousness was coursing through the land.
Moving pictures, still not completely acceptable, and still silent, were beginning to become popular. Vaudeville and live theatre, however were still prominent. Nellie Melba’s concerts were selling heavily in advance, Gladys Moncrieff was wowing them in The Maid of The Mountains, Fullers and the Tiv were showing the best of overseas performers.
It was the time of the Criterion, The Palace, The Tivoli, The Royal, the Grand Opera House and St James Hall. The era of grand theatres and grand melodramas.
One of the grandest theatres was Her Majesty’s. It was one of JC Williamson’s flagship theatres in Sydney. Located on the corner of Pitt and Market streets, it’s three level auditorium and large capacity, made it one of the most spectacular theatres in Sydney. It hosted opera, drama, divas and legends. It was at this venue that a series of musical comedies caused a sensation in the 1920s. One of these was called ‘Oh Lady! Lady!’ and starred popular Australian comedienne, Dorothy Brunton.
‘Oh Lady! Lady!’ reflected some of the values of the day. The heroine, played by Brunton was Fainting Fanny. A pickpocket who plied her trade by fainting into men’s arms and then robbing them as they looked for medical help. The fact that the heroine was ‘crook’, was considered rather daring at the time. In fact this was a reflection of the changing values of female independence and rebelliousness, which were sweeping the world. Other characters in the comedy included Spike Hodgins, a valet, played by Alfred Frith, Finch, his employer, (Cyril Ritchard) and Underwood (William Greene) as a man about town.
The plot was a convoluted one. Hodgins was in love with Fanny . His boss, Finch, was scheduled to marry, but the wedding was threatened by the appearance of a predatory woman called Marjorie Barber, played by Madge Elliott. In order to prevent disaster, Hodgins asked Fanny to impersonate one of Finch’s ex girlfriends in order to chase the evil Marjorie away. Fortunately, Marjorie and Underwood fell in love and everybody finished happily ever after
The play thus involved those common elements of farce, a wedding, an impersonation, a mix up, and several love affairs. The comedy was followed by a series of specialty acts, which filled the remainder of the evening.
Dorothy Brunton was a hit in the role of Fanny. She made her first appearance on stage popping up from a trunk. Her costume consisted of a ‘dead leaf green sports coat, short check skirt, and German students black velvet cap.’ Her soprano voice and nimble pas de deux were greatly admired. The latter was encored twice. The Sydney Mail described her performance as the finest of her career.
Albert Firth was also complimented in his role as the valet. His humour, especially the way he touched wood after lisping in a cockney accent that ‘he hasn’t taken anything yet’ was well received by audience and critics. Albert and Dorothy brought down the house when they sang the duet, "Our little Nest’, a song about domestic bliss.
Frith was a veteran comedian and knew how to engage an audience. When he joined with Cyril Ritchard and William Greene for the trio, ‘Do it now’ their comic timing and wonderful dancing were warmly applauded.
The ballet, which was performed in the wedding scene, was equally well received and ballet mistress Minnie Hooper was warmly called on stage at the conclusion of the evening.
Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott had prominent roles in the farce. Ritchard played Finch, and Madge played Marjorie Barber. The acting of these two was described as showing promise, but it was their dancing that almost stole the show. Their specialty turn, La Veeda was particularly admired.
La Veeda contained the simple lyrics, ‘La Veeda, life of Spain, eyes that shine, like stars in the sky.’ Yet it was the dancing to this simple song that electrified the spectators. Madge dressed in very short skirt, low cut dress and broad brimmed hat was the very essence of a 1920s woman when she and Cyril danced the fox trot to the melody.
‘Oh Lady! Lady!’ was one of many musicals presented by JC Williamson and Company in the early 1920s. It’s bright and breezy numbers, daring costumes and vibrant ethos embodied the spirit of the Jazz age. It played at Her Majestys for a short period before being transferred to the newly refurbished Royal. The season lasted for several months and continually played to large audiences. It was followed by another musical, 'Theodore and Co' performed by most of the same company. Dorothy Brunton however was not in 'Theodore and Co'. She left Australia to pursue a career in films. For Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard, ‘Oh Lady! Lady!’ was the beginning of a highly successful dance partnership which would take them overseas and last for almost 20 years.