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Thursday, 01 September 2022

Clara Clifton: From England’s provincial theatres to the Australian stage (Part 1)

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BOB FERRIS takes a look at the life and career of the musical comedy performer Clara Clifton who came out to Australia as a member of George Edwardes’ Gaiety Company in 1904 and chose to remain in this country.

Clara CliftonW D & H O Wills—Stage and Music Hall Celebrities—Clara Clifton No. 46 in set of 50A recent purchase of a Wills cigarette card featuring Clara Clifton prompted my interest in this relatively forgotten actress and comedienne of the Australian stage. Through a distance family connection—one of my wife’s cousins is married to a granddaughter of Clara Clifton—I was aware that she had been a prominent theatrical performer during the 1900s. To my surprise, however, when I started to look into Ms Clifton’s professional life, I discovered that much of the readily available history focuses not so much on her significant skills as a performer, but on her physical appearance. At the peak of her career Clara was variously described as: ‘a fat and buxom lady of uncertain age’;1 a ‘large pleasant comedienne’;2 and a ‘plump and pleasing person’.3

A deeper delve into Ms Clifton’s career reveals a woman with an impressive theatrical pedigree who enjoyed considerable success both in Australia and overseas, and her physique and humorous persona was a reminder that there was room for the character actress among the more glamorous figures.

In 1906, having been on the Australian stage for several years, she was described by one newspaper columnist as ‘one of the most ornamental figures on the Australian stage’.4

Early life

Clara Clifton was born Clara Louise Ruth Larkin on 8 August 1872 at Whitechapel, London, the daughter of Harriet Larkin and John James Larkin. Her father, also known as John James Clifton, died when Clara was 8 years old. John James is listed as a comedian in the 1871 English census, as is Harriet.

By 1891 the family was living at 6 Albion Terrace, Hackney, and the census of that year records Clara as Clara Larkin, 18 years old, with ‘occupation at home’. The occupation for her mother (now Harriet Yates) is listed as Comedienne Act and her stepfather George Yates is also listed as Comedian Act. While the 1891 census records her surname as Larkin, press reports of Clara’s theatrical work, later the same year, name her as Clifton. Precisely when Clara adopted Clifton as her surname is unknown, but it was certainly post 1880. Clifton was probably chosen because it was her father’s stage name and it was also her paternal grandmother’s maiden name (Mary Clifton).

In the 1901 census, Clara is listed as Clara Clifton, 28 years old, with her occupation now shown as Actress. She was living in a boarding house in Battersea with several other lodgers in a household of theatrical personnel.

Growing up in a family of stage performers, it was not surprising that Clara was attracted to the theatre, and blessed with a good singing voice and a determination to succeed, she was able to carve out a successful career as a pantomime and musical comedy performer.

HH MorellH.H. Morell and Frederick Mouillot

Pantomime

During the 1890s and early 1900s Clara Clifton was a regular performer on the English provincial theatre circuit, both in pantomimes and musical comedies, where she learnt her trade and honed her skills as a comedienne. She was also fortunate to be picked up by H.H. Morell and Frederick Mouillot, who had set up in partnership in 1885, By the late 1890s they operated eighteen provincial theatres, touring their numerous stock companies around their growing network of theatres and halls.

Pantomime played an important role in establishing Clara’s name and popularity and one of her earliest recorded performance was her role as Veribad in The Forty Thieves pantomime at the Crystal Palace on 26 December 1891 when she was 19 years of age.5 The following Christmas, December 1892, she played Kenelm in the Dick Whittington pantomime at the New Olympic Theatre.6

Clara was a regular performer in Dick Whittington pantomimes, playing the role of Bertie in Morell and Mouillot’s 1895 Christmas annual at the Theatre Royal in Exeter7 and in the New Year, in the same show, she played the role of principal boy, Dick, and took her benefit at the theatre. She also appeared as a dashing Lord Lollipop in Dick Whittington at the Grand Opera House, Belfast over the Christmas/New Year period of 1897/98, and at the opening of Dick Whittington at the New Queen’s Theatre, Leeds in December 1898 she again appeared as the vivacious and pleasing principal boy.

Other pantomime work followed. At Christmas 1900-01, she played the principal boy in Morell and Mouillot’s production of the comic pantomime Robinson Crusoe at the Queen’s Theatre, Leeds and Robin Hood in April/May the next year. The Stage magazine wrote:

Miss Clara Clifton was a dashing Robin Hood. Possessed of a handsome stage presence and well moderated voice … Her songs ‘Nancy’ and ‘John Bull’ were rapturously greeted.8

Reviewing the same pantomime, Ireland’s Saturday Night commented that Clara ‘makes a stalwart, dashing Robin Hood and can sing the coon song “Ma Curly Headed Babby”, to perfection’.9

She also appeared in Mouillot and Warden’s 1901 Easter Pantomime, The Babes in the Wood at the Theatre Royal Belfast.10

Musical comedy

However, Clara’s acting vitae was broader than pantomime and her early work was complemented with appearances in a number of other productions. She was a member of the cast in William Hogarth’s Comic Opera Co.’s Gaiety Theatre production of the opera-comique, Les cloches de Corneville11 and she performed in the burlesque show, Bonnie Boy Blue at the Theatre Metropole in late 1894. Of this last-named show, The Era noted:

Miss Clara Clifton is a promising young artiste, and her embodiment of Archie Lovell is spirited and graceful.12

Clara also performed as Sweeney Sal, a coster girl, in Morell and Mouillot’s production of The Little Duchess in 1898 and as Lady Constance Wynne in The Geisha in mid-1899. Clara was also one of a number of theatrical persons to entertain at a special Morell and Mouillot matinee at the London Opera House in mid-November 1899 in aid of the widows and orphans of soldiers killed in the Transvaal War.

Despite continued success in pantomime, it was her performances in three Morell and Mouillot musical comedies—The Shop Girl, The Circus Girl and The Runaway Girl—that marked her as an impressive, stand out theatrical artist.

The Shop Girl was an early success in which Clara played Ada Smith, one of the foundlings employed as a shop assistant at the Royal Stores. The Shop Girl had first opened in London in late 1894 under the direction of George Edwardes’ London Gaiety Company and subsequently by Morell and Mouillot who had acquired the provincial rights from Edwardes, touring the production around their network of theatres, opening at the Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne in August 1895.

The Shop Girl became a perennial favourite with audiences and was staged throughout England and Scotland well into the late 1890s and early 1900s with Clara winning plaudits for her role as Ada Smith. At the opening of the Morell and Mouillot’s Grand Theatre, Margate in August 1898 Clara’s ‘foundling’ song was vociferously encored.13 and The Stage magazine—in an early reference to her physique which would remain constant throughout her stage career—said she was excellent as the massive Ada Smith.14 Almost a decade later Clifton again played Ada Smith when the musical farce was performed in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. According to the Leader, the part of Ada Smith suited Clara’s style of humour:

… her unconscious malapropisms, if smacking somewhat of prearrangement, raised a tribute of a laugh.15

Touring poster for A Runaway GirlTouring poster for A Runaway Girl, 1898, https://www.pbfa.org/books/a-runaway-girl-poster-from-a-production-at-the-theatre-royal-nottingham

In the latter part of 1899, Clara played the low comedy part of Mrs. Drivelli, the wife of the circus owner in The Circus Girl and as reported by The Era:

she proved the centre of attraction for her meritorious rendering of the part which she invested with much charm and piquancy. Two songs associated with the part, ‘When I used to ride a gee-gee in the circus’ and ‘That’s not a proper way to treat a lady’ were heartily encored.16

Clara was also praised for her role as Carmenita, a Corsican street musician, in A Runaway Girl when the musical toured the provincial theatre circuit. Playing in Oldham, one reviewer wrote:

Clara Clifton’s cockney dialect in her assumption of the part of Blackfriars Road Italian singing girl, Carmenita is irreproachable.17

The production continued to tour into early 1901 with reviews of Clara just as complimentary. One, following her performance in Exeter made special mention of her mezzo-soprano voice and its excellent effect in her song ‘I Love Society’ for which she was encored three times.18

With essentially a new cast, Morell and Mouillot staged the three most popular musical comedies of the day—The Circus Girl, The Shop Girl and The Gaiety Girl—at the Palace Theatre, Yeovil in early 1900. The roles of Mrs. Drivelli and Ada Smith, which Clara had ‘made her own’, were now played by Ada Clare with Clara in the role of a dignified Lady Diana Wemyss in The Circus Girl, and the handsome, stately and effective aristocratic Lady Appleby in The Shop Girl.19 In The Gaiety Girl she played Lady Grey. Why the change? Perhaps the producers thought it was time for her to take on more mature, character roles, and leave the ingenue roles to even younger actresses. Regardless of the change of cast on this occasion, Clara again assumed the role of Ada Smith and Mrs. Drivelli in performances through to 1902. Likewise, she continued to play Carmenita into the same year, receiving praise as the Cockney-Italian singer when A Runaway Girl played at the Norwich Theatre.20

South Africa

During 1902 and early 1903 Clara toured South Africa with Frederick Mouillot’s South African Repertoire Company, performing mainly at the Opera House in Capetown and the Standard Theatre in Johannesburg. It was the repertory company’s first visit to the Opera House where they performed the pantomime Sleeping Beauty. In part, a review said that Clara, who played Prince Peerless, possessed a commanding presence and much sprightliness.21 After a run of four weeks the pantomime was replaced by The Belle of New York with Clara as a lively and amusing Cora Angelique.22

From Capetown, the company had a short run at Kimberley in early June where they performed Sleeping Beauty in which Clara’s ‘songs, “I can’t tell why I love you”, “Oh Flo” and “Dolly Gray” were given with the finish of a true artist’.23 The following week, The Gaiety Girl was staged, where Clara, as Lady Virginia Forest, ‘acted and sang charmingly and the Bathing Machine scene with Mr. Brierley evoked much amusement with her droll acting’.24

After this short but successful tour the repertory company re-opened at the Opera House in August with Gentleman Joe, with Clara in the role of Mrs. Ralli-Carr.

In early October at the Standard Theatre the company presented The French Maid with Clara as Madame Camembert25 followed the next month with The Belle of New York and Bluebell in Fairyland with Clara as the Reigning Queen.

At the Standard Theatre on Boxing night 1902 Messrs Sass and Nelson presented Sleeping Beauty with Clara again playing the dashing Prince Peerless. The following January, Mouillot’s company performed The Thirty Thieves at the Standard with Clara as Mariana, and later staged The Topsy-Turvy Hotel with Clara as Mdlle Flora. This concluded her successful tour with Mouillot’s South African Repertoire Co.

Era 1903From early August to late October 1903, Clara placed this advertisement in The Era

Australia

On her return to England there appears to have been a paucity of work for Clara, and from early August 1903 to late October she resorted to placing advertisements in The Era magazine promoting her availability for shows: ‘At Liberty for Good Autumn Tour, and Principal Boy, Christmas’. Quite possibly during this hiatus Clara took up an engagement with George Edwardes’ London Gaiety Company to join his American touring party in Australia.

Around this time the Gaiety Company had just completed a very successful American season (from early September 1903 to the following April), with performances of Three Little Maids at Daly’s and later the Garden Theatre in New York, and also including shows in Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto.26

The company, which included many experienced West End performers such as comedian George Huntley, Madge Crichton, Maud Hobson, Delia Mason, Elsa Ryan and Maurice Farkoa arrived in Sydney from San Francisco on board the RMS Ventura on 7 May 1904. From Sydney the company travelled by train to Melbourne to open with Three Little Maids on 14 May at the Princess Theatre. The Girl from Kay’s and Kitty Grey followed as part of an 18 week season, half of which was spent in Melbourne.27

Several days after the Gaiety touring party arrived in Melbourne, Clara joined them, arriving on 18 May as a passenger on board the RMS Orotava from London. She had missed the staging of the first production and due to casting and rehearsal schedules it was not until later in the season that she was introduced to Australian audiences in the musical comedy Kitty Grey, an adaptation of the French comedy Les fétards with lyrics by Adrian Ross and music by Augustus Barratt, Howard Talbot and Paul Rubens.

Kitty Grey had been outstanding success in London, playing at the Apollo Theatre in 1901 for over a year and equally, it was the hit of the George Edwardes season in Melbourne which opened at the Princess Theatre on 25 June 1904. Madge Crichton played the title role and was supported by G.P. Huntley as the Earl of Plantagenet, Maurice Farkoa as Baron de Tregue, J. Edward Fraser as King Ernest of Illyria, Delia Mason as Baroness de Tregue, Eva Kelly as Saidie, sister of the Baroness, and Clara Clifton as Mrs. Bright, known as Brightie. Three of the cast, Kelly, Farkoa and Huntley had been members of the Apollo production, the others were newcomers to the musical.

FL21769375Program for Kitty Grey, Princess Theatre, Melbourne, 1904. State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.
View full program, https://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/4224761
Like previous Gaiety Company musical comedies, Kitty Grey was short on storyline but long on amusement and full of laughable nonsense. The comedy concerns three men, Baron de Tregue, King Ernest of Illyria, and the Earl of Plantagenet and their infatuation with Kitty Grey an actress with London’s Frivolity Theatre. More particularly, the play centres on the marriage of Baron and Baroness de Tregue, where the pious Baroness Edith offers much marital advice but little love to her pleasure seeking husband who pursues a flirtation with Kitty. Anxious to win back her wayward husband, Edith turns to Kitty, an experienced temptress, for advice. More spice is added to the play as Kitty Grey’s dresser, Brightie was a former famous circus rider—Zo-Zo and a favourite of King Ernest.

While new to Australian audiences, Clara was a seasoned performer, reportedly with a style not unlike that of the buxom, good humoured Gaiety actress, Connie Ediss, who had successfully performed as Ada Smith, Mrs. Drivelli and Caroline Vokins, character rolls which also suited Clara. Kitty Grey gave Clara the opportunity to show her talent, which she successfully did in the role of Brightie. The audience warmed to her comely figure and unpretentious nature and the Melbourne press was generally impressed with her first appearance with the company, and typically The Argus wrote:

The newcomer, Miss Clifton was unrecognised on her first entry, but immediately after her song, “Zo-Zo”, her popularity was assured.  Endowed with humour, a genial presence, and a singing voice that has the power of making every word heard distinctly throughout the theatre, Miss Clifton is a valuable addition to the company.28

The Melbourne Punch was just as complimentary on Clifton’s performance:

Miss Clara Clifton’s rendering of the dresser who was once a queen of the arena is so good that it is a matter of regret that the actress had not been found a part in one of the previous productions. Her song ‘Little Zo-Zo’ is repeatedly encored, and is probably the best-remembered number in the piece.29

However, the Bulletin had reservations (and again referencing her physique):

Miss Clara Clifton, a new arrival, contributes a quite sonorous warble in a plain ordinary way. She is a large, genial-mannered lady, and a bit of a success as a humorous actress. But her personality looms larger than her success.30

After a short season in Melbourne the musical was performed at the Theatre Royal (Adelaide) and Her Majesty’s Theatre (Sydney) during July and August 1904, Clara again received favourable reviews, including:

Clara Clifton was a huge success as Brightie. She was so buxom and absolutely natural that all sections of the house fell in love with her. Her song Zo Zo was encored again and again.31

And:

the strongest voice among the ladies is possessed by Miss Clifton, who has decided low comedy ability. Her impersonation of Kitty’s aunt and ‘dresser’, Brightie, a one-time star of the circus was extremely comical and full of ‘go’.32

After seeing Clifton’s performance in Kitty Grey, J.C. Williamson was attracted to her comedic ability and engaged her for the 1904 season of the Royal Comic Opera Company. His belief in Clara was vindicated as she would go on to appear in numerous productions for the company and be a popular comedienne with audiences and critics. She was the only member of the Edwardes Gaiety company who was enticed to join Williamsons’ company when the Gaiety company left Australia at the end of their season.

Clara’s first appearance with the Royal Comic Opera Company was in The Orchid which had enjoyed enormous success at London’s Gaiety Theatre. Described as a spectacular attraction with brilliant scenery and costumes with gay and attractive music from the pens of Caryll, Monckton and Rubens, it played for the first time in Australia at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne in late October, 1904. Clara as the buoyant, amorous Caroline Vokins was an unqualified success.

 

To be continued

 

Endnotes

1. The Evening News, 1 August 1904, p.6

2. Critic (Adelaide), 11 January 1905, p.17

3. Punch (Melbourne), 17 May 1906, p.33

4. Critic (Adelaide), 21 November 1906, p.25

5. The Era (London), 26 December 1891, p.11

6. See J.P. Wearing, The London Stage 18901899: A calendar of productions, performers and personnel, second editions, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014

7. The Era (London), 28 December, 1895, p.22

8. The Stage (London), 1 April 1901, p.16

9. Saturday Night, 15 April 1901, p.2

10. Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 9 April 1901, p.1

11. Freeman’s Journal (Dublin), 6 May 1892, p.4

12. The Era (London), 8 December 1894, p.8

13. The Era (London), 6 August 1898, p.9

14. The Stage (London), 4 August 1898, p.3

15. Leader (Melbourne), 3 November 1906, p.22

16. The Era (London), 7 October 1899, p. 10

17. The Era (London), 10 February 1900, p.8

18. Western Times Exeter, 12 February 1901, p.5

19. The Era (London), 9 June 1900, pp.18–20

20. Eastern Daily Press, 7 January 1902, p.2

21. The Stage (London), 22 May 1902, p.18

22. The Era (London), 14 June 1902, p.23

23. The Era (London), 5 July 1902 p.19

24. The Era (London), 12 July 1902 p. 17

25. The Stage (London), 6 November 1902, p.17

26. The New York Times, 2 September 1903, p.3 and The New York Dramatic Mirror, 12 September 1903, p.14

27. Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 1904, p.3

28. Argus (Melbourne), 27 June 1904, p.6

29. Punch (Melbourne) 7 July1904 p.30

30. Bulletin (Sydney), 30 June 1904, p.10

31. Evening Journal (Adelaide), 18 July 1904, p.2

32. Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 3 August 1904, p.303

Read 180 times Last modified on Tuesday, 06 September 2022
Bob Ferris

Bob Ferris is a member of the Australian Cartophilic Society of Australia and has collected cigarette and trade cards since the late 1970s. He has been a regular contributor to the Society Newsletter and Magazine—The Australian Card Collector—for over twenty years and has been Co-editor of the magazine since 2016.

Bob was awarded Life Membership of the Society in 2019.