The Historical Pageant of British Music performed by the C.U.M.S., using St. John’s New Court as a background, only received one performance in the open air, the other two being given indoors owing to rain.
Out of doors, the effect alone of torchlight and horses, of groups and processions, made the evening a memorable one. But when the production had to be compressed in the cramping and somewhat disillusioning daylight conditions of St. John’s Hall, the pageant seemed shorn of its most important attribute—pageantry. Nevertheless the conception as a whole was grandiose, and a real laurel must be awarded to the ladies in the back room who so admirably clothed such a large cast.
Amongst much excellent devising and excellent singing the only major blemish was the dialogue. A timely cut would have been welcome in nearly every scene, for conversation had been allowed to outgrow its place, and one kept wanting to hurry on to some music. When the music did ultimately arrive the show came to life in no uncertain manner.
Each scene was preceded by a prologue, and here, as in many other places, the stage was dignified by the presence of senior members of our intellectuocracy. In the first scene we learned how the rota “Sumer is icumen in” came to be written, and how it should be sung. Next we were treated to a procession of Chaucerian Canterbury Pilgrims, and heard, amongst other things, one of those vital monodic estampies played on a recorder (with Handelian accompaniment on the harpsichord) at a dainty pace that was wholly charming. The next scene appeared to take place in a castle in Troyes, but I was unable to gather what was going on, and such of the dialogue as came my way gave no clue. Still, there was music, and the following scene was ample consolation, with Mrs Beatrice Oldfield as a highly colourful Queen Elizabeth, and Thomas Morley’s “Sing we and chant it,” amongst other favourites. Then we passed from pageant to pantomime, and were diverted by the incursion of some very primitive Puritans, complete with metrical psalm, who came not a moment too early in the midst of what appeared to be an abandoned cavalier debauch. It was one of the highspots of the evening.
But the final scene, showing Charles II’s return from Newmarket in 1682 (and a much happier return he had than ours some days ago) was undoubtedly the most pleasing of all. Mr Tickell as the restored monarch carried an engaging little puppy of royal breed, while Miss Jenny Burnaby carried us all into raptures with her saucy little dance as Nell Gwynn.
Mrs Prior and Mr Ord are to be greatly thanked for their happy choice of music and their admirable drawing of human patterns to set it off. I have deliberately refrained from singing the praises of individual soloists of whom there were many and talented, for with a cast of several hundred persons the line of backs requiring a pat is something to boggle at. The Society, however, as a whole, deserves hearty congratulations on its policy and its achievement.