Mrs Pat


Theatre Royal, York (2002). Cast included Isla Blair as Mrs Pat, Philip Joseph, Ifan Meredith and Joseph Raishbrook. Directed by Sue Dunderdale.

At the turn of the last century, maturity was all.  There was an arc to a professional career - apprentice, journeyman, master craftsman.  In the theatre you began in rep, played juveniles or character roles, progressing, with luck, to fame and fortune at 40.  Grown-ups ruled the world.  The Empresses of the theatre - Bernhardt, Terry, Eleanore Duse all played leads until late middle-age.  Girls longed for sophistication - even in the late 1940s there was still a yearning for the maturity of pearls and the little black dress.  Then commerce responded to the new buying power of post-war youth.  Young was in.  Women began to look like jailbait - 40 year olds in long, blonded hair and short skirts like schoolgirls.

     It still takes 20 years to create an actress.  By that time, in this country, the roles are running out.  In France you are a femme de trente ans.  In England you are middle-aged.

Not so earlier in the century.  The memory of Mrs Patrick Campbell's ferocious allure still lodges in the imagination.  She is remembered for her wit, for bad behaviour, and for her close friendship with George Bernard Shaw.

     She was a great actress.  When she wanted to be.  Having been born with that greatest of theatrical handicaps, a low boredom threshold, she frequently behaved dreadfully onstage.  She played wicked tricks, teasing Sarah Bernhardt (who gave as good as she got) and ad-libbed mercilessly, once murmuring to a younger actor in a less than engaging play that it was like being in prolonged child labour (he said he knew what she meant).

     But, on form, she was incomparable, the glory of her age.  Her work was daring and unpredictable, enhanced by her great beauty.  Shaw worshipped her.  He wrote Pygmalion for her and begged her to play Eliza.  She demurred..."if you do not think I am too ripe for the role at 45."  "At 50" he corrected her.  So she did it, and was enormously successful as the young Cockney flower-girl.  At 50.

     Note:  Mrs Pat, as she was known everywhere, was born Stella Tanner.  She used her husband's name in affectionate regard for him.

                                                                                                                                          Pam Gems