Following her successful and popular performance as ‘Brightie’ in the George Edwardes Gaiety Company’s production of Kitty Grey, Clara was engaged by J.C. Williamson for the 1904 season of the Royal Comic Opera Company.
Clara’s first appearance with the company was in The Orchid which had enjoyed enormous success at London’s Gaiety Theatre during 1903. Described as a spectacular attraction with brilliant scenery and costumes with gay and attractive music from the pens of Caryll, Monckton and Rubens and lyrics by Ross and Greenback, it played for the first time in Australia at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne on 29 October 1904. The show enjoyed capacity audiences throughout its three month season which extended over the Christmas and New Year period.
Typical of musical comedies, the plot of The Orchid posed no challenge for the audience.1 Essentially, it involved the hunt and rivalry between British and French politicians to secure a ‘special’ orchid which had been cultivated by the gardener at a Horticultural College. Marital mix-ups, romantic attraction between the various characters, together with a bevy of young female college students, coloured the storyline.
A notable feature of the production was the number of comedians in the cast, from old favourites, George Lauri (as Meakin the College gardener) and Claude Bantock (Aubrey Chesterton) to a new company member, W.S. Percy (Comte Raoul de Cassignat) who had been the lead comedian with Pollard’s Opera Company for many years. Between them, and Clara, they provided numerous comic interludes. The cast also included Florence Young as Josephine Zaccary, a teacher at the College, and Evelyn Scott as Lady Violet Anstruther, the College principal pupil. Clara played the part of Caroline Vokins, and as the buoyant, amorous Vokins she was an unqualified success.
In several scenes Clara appeared alongside George Lauri and the matrimonial manoeuvring and the love scenes between the two were described as rich in comicality.2 Clifton and Lauri would go on to regularly perform together in J.C. Williamson’s musical comedies and they formed a successful partnership, often providing much of the humour.
Opening night reviews were full of praise for Clara’s performance. The opinion of the Age critic was typical: ‘Her methods are admirable. Her stage presence commanding, and her artless trick of tempting the audience to laugh with, not at, proved irresistibly infectious. She has two of the most “catchy” songs in the piece, “Advertisements” and “Fancy Dress”, for both of which she received the well-merited compliment of a double encore, and at all points she quickly established herself as a firm favourite.’3
With her jovial personality, sense of humour and infectious habit, if annoying to some, of laughing at the end of her lines, Clara quickly established a rapport with Melbourne theatre lovers, and the enthusiastic reception she received on her first performance with the Royal Comic Opera Comedy company was noted by Playgoer of Punch. As J.C. Williamson once remarked, while Australian audiences were in many ways the best in the world, they were most difficult to please, but ‘when an Australian audience likes you their applause is genuine’.4 And they certainly liked Clara!
After a three month season in Melbourne, The Orchid played in Sydney and Perth, where new songs, ‘In My Time’ and ‘Only Fancy Me’ were added to Clara’s repertoire. Two years later, in April 1907, when The Orchid was performed at the Theatre Royal, Adelaide and at Geelong and Ballarat, Clara was described as a clever and versatile actress, a perfect artiste, inimitable in the role of Caroline Vokins. Her two songs, ‘In my Time’ and ‘Fancy Dress’, were smart character sketches and deservedly encored.5
On 7 January 1905 an enthusiastic audience was at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne for the revival of the ever popular Florodora. It was a lavish stage spectacular with a new and capable cast, strong chorus and ballet, but it ran for only a short season and while there was a smattering of praise for some individual performances, the critics generally felt that the 1905 production was a disappointment.
Clara was cast in the role of Lady Holyrood, an announcement which was viewed with some misgivings in theatrical circles as she was to play a young widow, fashionable, cold and cynical, attributes thought foreign to a comedienne who was full of humour and a sense of fun.
Also, when a musical was revived, audiences and critics invariably made comparisons of the performances of the cast and of the production itself with earlier shows. This was true of Florodora, and in particular, Clara’s role as Lady Holyrood, the part which Grace Palotta had been well-praised for in the earlier George Edwardes’ 1900 production. In applauding Palotta’s charm and graceful performance, the Age wrote: ‘… Florodora without a Lady Holyrood—and without a particularly good Lady Holyrood to boot—is unthinkable.’6
Against this backdrop how did Clara fare in 1905?
The magazine, Table Talk of 12 January left its readers in no doubt, writing that Clara Clifton was decidedly out of her element as Lady Holyrood and that she lacked the chic necessary for the part, and does not give the expression of the smart society woman. The review concluding that while she looks pretty and wears beautiful clothes, she was a pleasing Lady Holyrood, but not a representative of the ‘smart set’.7 Peter Quince writing for Punch was more gracious, noting that her performance, though lacking the grace that marks the ‘Caste of Vere de Vere’, is a decidedly meritorious performance, and her clear enunciation both in dialogue and singing is a treat to listen to.8
While there was a diversity of opinion from other critics, the tenor of their comments was generally prejudiced by comparisons to Palotta’s earlier performance, as opposed to judging Clara on her performance. The Critic, for instance, wrote that Miss Clara Clifton as Lady Holyrood:
seemed at the outset alarming, considering the proportions of the comedienne and the class of work in which she has excelled here. She set about winning the audience in the first place by her frocking. It was sumptuous and sported with an idea of dignity. This is what Miss Clifton strove to maintain in her Lady Holyrood role all through the show. Where her fascinating predecessor shone for grace, this large, pleasant comedienne aimed at dignity … Where this Lady Holyrood fell short was in the spiced and often wicked wit which gives a relish to some of the dialogue. There is no acidity in Miss Clifton’s voice, and no vinegar in her expression. So the malicious worldling’s humour lost its sting. The big, kindly, good-tempered face of the player discounted the malice of the Holyrood remarks.9
Moreover, the Critic provides another example of how reviews of the time were happy to comment on Clara’s physical appearance.
Whether these critiques had an effect on Clara is unknown, but she would have taken some comfort from Peter Quince’s opinion that in comparing the two actresses he had no hesitation in saying that Miss Clifton was a better actress—measured upon points—than Miss Palotta.10
Indeed, when Florodora was performed at Her Majesty’s, Sydney for a six night season beginning on 12 May 1906, Clara was an undeniable success as Lady Holyrood. Reportedly, Sydney theatre patrons found her in fine voice and her saucy and snappy ‘When I Leave Town’ and her songs in the second Act—‘Tact’ and ‘I’ve an Inkling’ and ‘I Want to Marry a Man I Do’ which Clara sang with Tweedlepunch (George Lauri) and Cyrus Gilfain (Fred Leslie) were very popular and encored more than once.
Perhaps the ambivalent Melbourne reviews provided the challenge to Clara to rework the role of Lady Holyrood as her own because the Sydney season prompted excellent reviews, such as that in the The Australian Star (Sydney) of 14 May which wrote: ‘the honours of the evening were carried off by Lady Holyrood who broke away from the “traditions” of the part which had been left by Miss Grace Palotta … Those who had predicted that Miss Clifton would cut a poor figure as Lady Holyrood were very much out in their reckoning.’11
Following the Melbourne season of Florodora the charming musical comedy, The Geisha returned to Her Majesty’s Theatre in mid-January 1905 with Florence Young in the lead role of O Mimosa San the chief Geisha and with George Lauri as Wun-hi the Tea House proprietor. Clara was cast as the statuesque society dame, Lady Constance Wynne, a visitor to Japan, and it was said that her usual jovial humour gave some life to an otherwise colourless part. In particular, her by-play when George Lauri performed ‘Chin Chin Chinaman’ was roundly applauded.12
Clara’s growing stage popularity (often touted as the ‘Goddess of the Gods’) was acknowledged when the visiting American impersonator Alice Pierce, well known for her impersonations of leading actresses, included an imitation of Clara in her repertoire when appearing at the Tivoli Theatre in May 1905. According to reviews, Pierce’s mannerisms and voice of Clara (with her irritating drawl) were splendid and her recital of familiar lines from The Orchid, ‘Where’s My Rupert’ and ‘It isn’t the money I want, it’s the man’ were readily recognised by the audience.13
In late May of 1905 a Grand Matinee Performance by the Royal Comic Opera Company in aid of their Sick Fund14 was held at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney with a performance of Florodora and a selection of items from The Orchid and The Cingalee. Several members of the company performed, including Clara who appeared as Lady Holyrood, and together with Claude Bantock and Margaret Thomas she contributed to other items on the program. Clara was also involved in a similar program at a special matinee in early June in aid of the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children.
Clara was not part of the cast which performed The Cingalee during April and October 1905 and some reviews noted this with regret and surprise after her strong showing in The Orchid. Was her absence because of the wealth of female talent available—Margaret Thomas, Ivy Scott, Evelyn Scott, Rose Musgrove and Alexia Bassian—and it was difficult to cast them all? Or perhaps, there was no suitable role for Clara—was she already being type-cast? There was also a suggestion that a planned return to London, which didn’t eventuate, was the reason for her omission.
Prior to staging Veronique in Melbourne there was a gap in the Opera Company’s programming schedule around late October 1905 and management decided to revive The Orchid for a short run; a choice possibly influenced by the availability of audience favourite, Clifton and her success in the role of Caroline Vokins. The show and Clara’s reappearance was enthusiastically welcomed by theatre patrons.
The Company performed Andre Messager’s comic opera Veronique for the first time in Australia at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne on 11 November 1905 and in Sydney at Her Majesty’s the following January. Described as a modernised opera bouffe, the plot revolves around Helene de Solanges, a rich heiress, who in the guise of Veronique a flower girl working at the fashionable Parisian florists of Monsieur and Madame Coquenard, sets out to captivate Count Florestan de Valiancourt. Helene is assisted in her escapade by her aunt and chaperone, Emerance, Countess de Champ Azur, the role played by Clara.
Opinions were mixed on Clara’s performance as Emerance. For some, she acquitted herself capably, played the role with great spirit and read the character of a modern, wise, worldly woman with insight. Others thought she was somewhat disappointing, afraid to be too unrestrained, and did not present the lofty type of beauty needed for a Countess, although playing the character with composure.
The review in Table Talk on Clara’s performance in the Melbourne show was particularly pertinent. It noted there was a sameness about Clara’s acting, and that the Countess was played to a certain extent as a second edition of Caroline Vokins.15
In early December 1905, The Girl From Kay’s replaced Veronique at Her Majesty’s, Melbourne to excellent reviews with the press generally agreeing that the present cast had out-sung, out-danced and outperformed the George Edwardes Gaiety Company’s production the previous year.
Clara had a small role in this production but presented as an imposing, handsome Mrs. Chalmers. In the Edwardes’ production, Maud Hobson played Mrs. Chalmers and Punch’s Peter Quince wrote that comparisons with previous productions, however odious were inevitable but noted that ‘Miss Clara Clifton, as Mrs. Chalmers, need no fear of comparison that may be instituted’.16
The musical moved to Sydney, opening on Boxing Night, 1905, and the following July it was successfully staged at the Theatre Royal Adelaide where one reviewer wrote that Clara could not have been surpassed as the hysterical lachrymose Mrs. Chalmers.17
After an absence of some ten years, the musical farce The Shop Girl, almost burlesque to some, was again performed in Australian theatres. It opened in Sydney on 3 March 1906, playing for five weeks before moving to Adelaide’s Theatre Royal in July and later to Melbourne for a six-night run at Her Majesty’s Theatre, beginning on 27 October.
In The Shop Girl, Clara returned to one of her familiar roles as Ada Smith, a part in which she was well versed from her time on the English provincial theatre circuit.
As Ada it was said Clara acted with ‘archness and vivacity’ and presented as a youthful Mrs. Malaprop from the workhouse, comely to look upon, with a slow, amiable smile, and an innate sense of humour. Her rendition of the laughing song ‘Class’ was the hit of the show.18 19 In ‘Class’, Clara included several topical observations, with one in particular singled out for comment by the Sydney Daily Telegraph— it was a moral lecture about certain society peccadilloes, and even a dig at the man who goes to the theatre to study ‘the psychic effect of the high kick’.20 Perhaps Clara was alluding to the questionable tone of parts of the script.
When The Shop Girl played its short season in Melbourne, Clara’s humour was at its best, her innumerable faux pas, often played along with by fellow performers, had the house in fits of laughter.
Clara was back at Her Majesty’s, Sydney in the role of Madame Michu in Andre Messager’s comic opera The Little Michus which held its Australian premiere in early June 1906. It played for seven weeks before moving to Adelaide as the opening production for the season at the Theatre Royal and then to Melbourne.
As with Veronique, the intent of The Little Michus was to educate theatre patrons away from farcical musical comedy towards opera bouffe. Unlike the usual plotless musicals, The Little Michus had a coherent storyline, introduced fewer features typical of comic musicals and a tighter script which allowed little latitude for the comedians to improvise. This ‘new direction’ drew comment from the Melbourne Argus which thought that the comic skills of Lauri, Bantock, Percy, Leslie and Clifton were sadly missed and that they were all but lost as far as singing and dancing was concerned.21
The musical had Clara as Madame Michu with Claude Bantock as Monsieur Michu, the couple had been entrusted with looking after General Des Ifs daughter Blanch Marie in return for a sum of money which they used to open a shop. While bathing his own daughter Marie Blanch, Michu mixes the babies up and is unable to tell them apart. Difficulties arise when the girls grow up—the General wants the return of his long separated daughter, and romantic feelings between the girls, a young army officer and a shop assistant complicate matters, but after much toing and froing the relationships are satisfactorily resolved.
Although her part as Mme Michus was of minor interest Clara played the role in her usual effective style and together with Claude Bantock as the elderly Michus gave the audience many humorous moments. Clara also made a series of hits during the performance and her item, ‘If you happen to stop as you pass our shop’, received tremendous applause.22
The Little Michus finished its Melbourne season in early September with Punch noting that the principals in the production, which included Clara, ‘have added to their reputation as sterling artists.’23
To be continued
1. Plots in musical comedies were somewhat fanciful and existed to provide structure for the songs and to give each of the principals an opportunity to show off their comic and vocal skills. (‘Florodora’, Elisabeth Kumm, Theatre Heritage Australia, 25 June 2015)
2. Argus (Melbourne), 31 October 1904, p.6
3. Age (Melbourne), 31 October 1904, p.6
4. The Stage: What it Demands of the Actor, the Author, and the Manager: An Interview with J.C. Williamson—Part III, The Bookfellow, vol 1, no. 5, 31 January 1907, p.16
5. Ballarat Star, 30 April 1907, p.5
6. Age (Melbourne), 17 December 1900, p.6
7. Table Talk (Melbourne) 12 January 1905, p.17
8. Punch (Melbourne), 12 January 1905, p.26. The expression ‘Vere de Vere’ is found in Tennyson’s poem Lady Clara Vere de Vere. Quince uses the expression to imply that Clifton was lacking the class of an aristocratic person.
9. Critic (Adelaide), 11 January 1905, p.17
10. Punch (Melbourne), 12 January 1905, p.26
11. The Australian Star (Sydney), 14 May 1906, p.3
12. Table Talk (Melbourne), 26 January 1905, p.20
13. Evening News (Sydney), 1 May 1905, p.8 and The Australian Star,1 May 1905, p.2
14. The Fund was established by members of J.C. Williamson’s Comic Opera Company with members contributing 3d per week and when a member was ill a doctor was provided and £1 given to the sufferer. The Fund was supplemented with proceeds from an annual matinee performance by the company. The Fund Committee consisted of Messrs G. Lauri, Hugh J. Ward, F. Leslie, C. Kenningham, Coventry and Carroll.
15. Table Talk (Melbourne),16 November 1905, p.17
16. Punch (Melbourne), 14 December 1905, p.36
17. Register (Adelaide), 27 July 1906, p.7
18. Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 1906, p.10
19. According to one source Clifton borrowed ‘Class’ from The Silver Slipper. See The Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre, Kurt Gänzl, Second Edition Vol 3, p.1851. Schirmer Books 2001. Connie Ediss performed ‘Class’ in the 1901 production of The Silver Slipper.
20. Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 5 March 1906, p.9
21. Argus (Melbourne), 13 August, 1906 p.6
22. Critic (Adelaide), 25 July 1906, p.1
23. Punch (Melbourne), 13 September 1906, p.36
With thanks to
Andrew Barrie, a grandson of Andrew Barrie of Talma fame; Claudia Funder, Research Coordinator, Collections Arts Centre Melbourne; Elisabeth Kumm