Aldwych farce

The Aldwych farces were a series of twelve stage farces presented at the Aldwych Theatre, London, nearly continuously from 1923 to 1933. All but three of them were written by Ben Travers. They incorporate and develop British low comedy styles, combined with clever word-play. The plays were presented by the actor-manager Tom Walls and starred Walls and Ralph Lynn, supported by a regular company that included Robertson Hare, Mary Brough, Winifred Shotter, Ethel Coleridge and Gordon James.

The farces were so popular that touring companies were sent to present them in the British provinces. Most of the Aldwych farces were adapted for film in the 1930s, starring the original stage casts as far as possible. The plays were later seen in television versions, and some enjoyed revivals.


Leslie Henson and Tom Walls co-produced the farce Tons of Money in 1922 at the Shaftesbury Theatre. This was a great popular success, running for nearly two years, and they collaborated again, moving to the Aldwych Theatre. Walls secured a cheap, long-term lease on the theatre, which had fallen so far out of fashion with playgoers that it had been used as a YMCA hostel during the First World War.[1]

The first in the Aldwych farce series was It Pays to Advertise, which ran for nearly 600 performances.[2] Meanwhile, Ben Travers's first play, The Dippers, based on his 1920 novel of the same name, was produced and directed by Sir Charles Hawtrey.[3] It became a success on tour from 1921 and in another London theatre in 1922.[4] Lawrence Grossmith had acquired the rights to Travers's farce A Cuckoo in the Nest and sold them to Walls.[5]

It took Travers some time to establish a satisfactory working relationship with Walls, whom he found difficult as an actor-manager, and also distressingly unprepared as an actor. In the early days he also had reservations about the other star of the company, Ralph Lynn, who initially ad-libbed too much for the author's taste.[6] Travers built on each play, and the characterisations in the earlier plays, in writing the next farce for the company; and even Walls's calls to the stage manager for lines became a popular part of opening nights at the Aldwych.[7]

The Aldwych farces also featured a regular team of supporting actors: Robertson Hare as a figure of put-upon respectability; Mary Brough in eccentric old lady roles; Ethel Coleridge as the severe voice of authority; the saturnine Gordon James as the "heavy"; and first Yvonne Arnaud, then Winifred Shotter, as the sprightly young female lead.[8] The plays generally revolved around a series of preposterous incidents involving a misunderstanding, borrowed clothes and lost trousers, involving the worldly Walls character, the innocent yet cheeky Lynn, the hapless Hare, the beefy, domineering Brough, the lean, domineering Coleridge and the pretty and slightly spicy Shotter, all played with earnest seriousness.[7] The scripts incorporated and developed British low comedy styles, particularly "silly-asses, henpecked husbands, battleaxe mothers-in-law and lots of innocent misunderstandings."[9]

The farces proved popular, and touring casts were regularly sent to the provinces.[10] Some touring players, such as William Daunt (1893–1938) who played the Ralph Lynn roles, made considerable personal successes in the 1920s playing Aldwych farces in the provinces.[11] Lynn's younger brother Hastings Lynn, played his brother's roles in successful productions in Australia and New Zealand.[12] Among the up-and-coming performers who appeared in Aldwych farces before becoming famous were Roger Livesey,[13] Margot Grahame,[14] and Norma Varden.[14]

After five years of extraordinary success, Walls's business partnership with Henson ended in September 1927 during the run of Thark, and from October the Aldwych farces were presented by the firm of Tom Walls and Reginald Highley Ltd.[15] By 1930, Walls was losing interest in the theatre, turning his attention to the cinema. He did not appear in the last three of the twelve Aldwych farces, which had disappointing runs. The last of them, A Bit of a Test in 1933, ran for 142 performances, compared with runs of more than 400 performances for some of the earlier productions.[2]

In 1952, three years after Walls's death, Lynn and Hare starred at the Aldwych in a new Travers farce, Wild Horses. It ran from 6 November 1952 to 11 April 1953.[16] In the 1950s and early 1960s, a similar hit series of farces began at the Whitehall Theatre and came to be known as Whitehall farces.[7][17]

On stage

The following table shows the opening and closing dates, and the number of performances given, in the original productions of the Aldwych farces. All were written by Ben Travers, except where otherwise shown:[18]

Title Opening Closing Perfs. Plot and notes
It Pays to Advertise 2 February 1923 10 July 1925 598 The playboy son of a rich manufacturer sets up a spurious rival to his father's company. To his father's astonishment the venture is successful. (By Roi Cooper Megrue and Walter Hackett.)
A Cuckoo in the Nest 22 July 1925 26 June 1926 376 A young man is forced by circumstances to share a room overnight with a married woman friend. Their spouses take some convincing that there has been no impropriety.
Rookery Nook 30 June 1926 25 June 1927 409 A newlywed man gives shelter to a damsel in distress in his wife's absence, and has to head off scandal stirred up by his interfering sister-in-law.
Thark 4 July 1927 16 June 1928 401 The new owner of a country house insists that it is haunted. The old owner's family set out to prove that it is not.
Plunder 26 June 1928 27 April 1929 344 Two friends rob a rapacious woman of her jewels. An accidental death in the course of the crime complicates matters.
A Cup of Kindness 24 May 1929 1 February 1930 291 The son and daughter of feuding suburban families marry. The families attempt, with sporadic success, to sink their differences.
A Night Like This 18 February 1930  15 November 1930 267 A policeman and a flâneur join forces to outwit a criminal gang and restore a stolen necklace to its owner.
Marry the Girl 24 November 1930 16 May 1931 195 The defendant in a breach of promise case returns happily to the arms of the plaintiff; his more recent love pairs off with the plaintiff's lawyer. (By George Arthurs and Arthur Miller)
Turkey Time 26 May 1931 16 January 1932 263 A member of a seaside concert party is stranded when the promoter of her show absconds. Two chivalrous men, impeded at every turn by rampaging landladies demanding money, rescue her.
Dirty Work 7 March 1932 27 August 1932 195 The manager of a jewellery shop stages a mock robbery to trap a gang of thieves.
Fifty-Fifty 5 September 1932 21 January 1933 161 A shy music teacher finds himself running a casino. (Adapted by H. F. Maltby from a French original by Louis Verneuil and Georges Berr)
A Bit of a Test 30 January 1933 3 June 1933 142 England's cricket captain strives to keep his star batsman out of trouble during an Ashes series in Australia.

In film

Most of the farces, as well as some other works by Travers, were filmed during the 1930s.[19][20] The films featured many of the actors who had starred in the plays; Walls directed all the films except for Just My Luck and Marry the Girl.[21] The films introduced the farces to cinema audiences and were produced by a number of film distributors including the British & Dominions Film Corporation, Gaumont-British Picture Corporation and Gainsborough Pictures.[22]

Films of the original Aldwych farces are:

The two Aldwych farces not filmed by members of the company were It Pays to Advertise and A Bit of a Test. The first of these plays was an updated and Anglicised adaptation of an American play of 1914; a version of the original play was filmed in the US in 1931, starring Norman Foster, Carole Lombard and Richard "Skeets" Gallagher.

Other filmed farces by Travers, with one or more of the Aldwych stars, are:

Other film comedies of the period directed by Walls, with many of the Aldwych stars, are:

Source: British Film Institute[19]

Revivals and broadcasts

Of the twelve Aldwych farces Rookery Nook has been regularly revived. It is a staple of repertory companies from Dundee to Wolverhampton, Colchester and Oxford,[23] and has been revived in four productions in the West End.[24] Plunder has had several revivals: at the Bristol Old Vic in 1973,[25] at the National Theatre in 1976,[25] and at the Savoy Theatre in 1994.[26] A Cuckoo in the Nest was revived by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court in 1964.[27] As at 2013, the only other of the twelve to have been revived in the West End is Thark, in 1965 and 1989.[28]

The BBC has televised productions of several of the farces. In the 1950s Brian Rix's Whitehall company broadcast a series of performances.[29] In 1970, BBC television presented adaptations of six of the Aldwych series (and another Travers farce, She Follows Me About) with Arthur Lowe and Richard Briers in the Walls and Lynn roles.[30]


  1. Programme booklet for Plunder, National Theatre, March 1976, p. 9
  2. "Mr. Ralph Lynn", The Times, 10 August 1962, p. 11
  3. "The Dippers", Western Daily Press, 24 May 1922, p. 4
  4. "Travers, Master of Farce, Bows Out", The Glasgow Herald, 19 December 1980, p. 8
  5. Ben Travers, British Film Institute, accessed 1 June 2012
  6. Travers noted that the ad-libbing diminished as he came to anticipate and include in his scripts "the sort of thing Ralph himself would have said in the circumstances". Travers, p. 91
  7. Smith, pp. 50–69
  8. Trussler, p. 278
  9. Archive: "Tom Walls (1883 – 1949)" Archived 16 September 2012 at the Wayback Machine, British, accessed 2 June 2012
  10. "Local and District News", Western Gazette, 15 August 1930, pp. 4–5; and "Aldwych Farce at the Repertory", Western Morning News, 13 May 1933, p. 5
  11. "Prince's Theatre: Rookery Nook", The Manchester Guardian, 14 December 1926, p. 13
  12. "Criterion – A Cuckoo In The Nest", The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 December 1927, p. 7; "Rookery Nook", The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April 1928, p. 12; "Criterion – Thark", The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June 1928, p. 10; and "Stage Jottings", Auckland Star, Volume LIX, Issue 201, 25 August 1928, p. 2
  13. "Aldwych Theatre", The Times, 23 July 1925, p. 12
  14. "Aldwych Theatre", The Times , 19 February 1930, p. 12
  15. "Theatres", The Times, 28 September 1927, p. 12; and 3 October 1927, p. 12
  16. "The Theatres", The Times, 3 November 1952, p. 9, and 27 March 1953, p. 2
  17. Nightingale, Benedict. "Theater; England's Endless Love Affair with Farce", The New York Times, 30 August 1987, accessed 4 June 2012
  18. Gaye, p. 1253
  19. "Ben Travers", British Film Institute, accessed 1 June 2012
  20. Richards, pp. 101–02
  21. "Tom Walls", British Film Institute, accessed 1 March 2013
  22. Aldwych farce filmography, British Film Institute, accessed 2 June 2012
  23. "Scottish Theatre Programmes", National Library of Scotland; "Theatre Performances: 1954 – 1955", Leonard Rossiter; "Programme for Colchester Repertory Company's production of 'Rookery Nook' by Ben Travers", Essex Records Office; and "Playhouse People", Oxford Playhouse; all accessed 3 March 2013
  24. "St Martin's Theatre", The Times, 25 May 1942, p. 8; Lewsen, Charles. "Popkiss", The Times, 23 August 1972, p. 15; Wardle, Irving. "Higher lunacy of Ben Travers", The Times, 3 September 1986, p. 15; and Fisher, Philip. "Rookery Nook", The British Theatre Guide, 2009, accessed 3 February 2013
  25. National Theatre programme booklet for Plunder, 1976
  26. Nightingale, Benedict. "Humour among thieves", The Times, 4 December 1996, p. 34
  27. Trewin, J. C. "The World of the Theatre", The Illustrated London News, 26 August 1962, p. 302
  28. "Inspired Verbal Doodling in Spirited Farce", The Times, 4 August 1965, p. 7; and Kingston, Jeremy. "Comic caper from Travers, a farce master", The Times , 22 December 1989, p. 14
  29. "B.B.C. Television – Thark", The Times, 23 December 1957, p. 9
  30. "Broadcasting", The Times, 26 September 1970, p. 16; and "Richard Briers", British Film Institute, accessed 3 May 2013.


  • Gaye, Freda, ed. (1967). Who's Who in the Theatre (fourteenth ed.). London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons. OCLC 5997224.
  • Richards, Jeffrey (2001). "Crisis at Christmas". In Mark Connelly (ed.). Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American, British and European Cinema. London: Tauris. ISBN 1860643973.
  • Smith, Leslie (1989). "Ben Travers and the Aldwych Farces". Modern British Farce: A Selective Study of British Farce from Pinero to the Present Day. London: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0389208205.
  • Travers, Ben (1978). A-sitting on a Gate. London: W H Allen. ISBN 0491022751.
  • Trussler, Simon (2000). The Cambridge Illustrated History of British Theatre. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521419131.
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