Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Lena Ashwell and the Starlight Express

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Lena Ashwell and the Starlight Express

Article excerpt


By the time actress/manager Lena Ashwell (1869-1957) decided to produce The Starlight Express, the stage version of Algernon Blackwood's The Prisoner of Fairyland (adapted from his 'Uncle' books series), at the Kingsway Theatre, London, in December 1915, 'as a piece of Red Cross work for the mind during the first agony of the war', (1) she was a well-known and much publicised theatrical personality and contributor to the war effort. While there were many ingredients for a potential success, she created many challenges for herself and others by giving her large creative team just over two months to put the production together at a time when war-time constraints were severe and her own resources were fully stretched. Ultimately, the production was unsuccessful and the question remains as to whether she was in some way responsible for the long-term failure of a work which, despite the prominence of its composer, Edward Elgar, has never received a second fully-staged production.

Ashwell had signed a 99-year lease in 1907 when she took over the former Penley's Theatre and renamed it the Kingsway. Although initially successful in her management of this theatre, where in 1908 she won critical acclaim for her portrayal of Diana of Dobson's in Cicely Hamilton's 'New Woman' play, Ashwell ran into financial difficulties. She was obliged to rent the theatre to Harley Granville-Barker from early 1912 to April 1915 and then to the unsuccessful Vedrenne/Eadie management for a few months. By the late summer of 1915 the theatre was dark with no potential hirers. Ashwell had to maintain the theatre and despite her many other activities, she considered the only way to deal with the overheads was to resume her actress/manager position.

On 10 October 1915 Ashwell put forward a positive explanation for her return to this demanding task:

   I will confess to you that not only am I looking forward to
   returning to the Kingsway, but this time I hope to stay a long time
   if the public will allow me. I have been devoting most of my time
   lately to the War Funds and other charities. Who can refrain from
   such splendid work at such a 'calling' time? Still, naturally,
   there comes, also, a 'call' to do what I can in my own profession.

The first production was to be a new play, Iris Intervenes, announced on 2 October 1915 in the Evening News. There was no mention as yet of any plans to stage The Starlight Express as a family entertainment immediately after Christmas. It was clear, however, that Ashwell was planning to return to the stage in a central role, giving eight performances a week, as well as continuing her strenuous war-time projects which had begun with the outbreak of war in August 1914. A week after the Kingsway re-opening was announced, she spoke at the London Central YMCA at a fund-raising concert for the project closest to her heart--the Concerts at the Front initiative. This involved the audition and preparation of small parties of performers, engaged to entertain the troops, initially at YMCA huts in the war zones, which she had established in February 1915. By early October fifteen parties had spent up to four weeks each in France giving two or three concerts a day. As well as travelling to France and throughout Britain to speak at public fund-raising meetings, Ashwell was writing articles for newspapers, such as 'Concerts For The Army' and 'Music has a Vocation in Modern Warfare' (3), to promote the scheme. She was articulating many of her concerns about the impact of the war in interviews and through her involvement with organisations such as the Actresses' Franchise League:

   It is for us women to wage unremitting and strenuous war against
   all conditions of poverty and disease and misery that weaken the
   Empire at its heart. It is for us women to fight in dead earnest
   against the spirit of social apathy, indifference and despair; to
   stand by those who have lost their economic weapons, and to save
   them from the defeat that comes from loss of independence. … 
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