Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 down under

Fay Compton Jack McNaughton Sydney
Jack McNaughton (3rd from Left) with Fay Compton (3rd from right), Michael Wilding (2nd from right) and company arriving in Sydney October 1937 – Photo from Brisbane Telegraph.

Jack McNaughton was enjoying the spring sunshine and comfortable temperatures with the rest of the company as the SS Oronsay slipped into Melbourne on 4 October 1937. The 20,000-ton SS Oronsay was built in Glasgow in 1925 for the Orient Steam Navigation Company and was still in its prime as a comfortable cruise liner.

The Melbourne paparazzi and local journos were there to welcome Jack and a company of actors led by West End star Fay Compton – sister of novelist Compton McKenzie – which had left England a month earlier. They were touring three productions in Australia and New Zealand; Laurence Housman’s Victoria Regina, Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 and Gerald Savory’s George and Margaret.

After leaving Tilbury, Oronsay had called at Gibraltar, Toulon, Naples, Port Said, Suez, Aden, Colombo, and Fremantle, Western Australia where it arrived on 28 September 1937. It sailed on to Adelaide and Melbourne, Burnie, and Sydney. On board, the company enjoyed the opulence of a 1930s cruise liner. The trip had been an enjoyable cruise, the days filled with fine weather, deck games, cocktails and dinners, and rehearsal time for the approaching tour.

Jack McNaughton
Jack on SS Oronsay with Michael Wilding
Jack McNaughton
Deck games on SS Oronsay with Jack McNaughton, Michael Wilding and Ann Codrington

The company included Hayley Bell – who married Sir John Mills in 1941 and went on to write several successful plays and the novel Whistle Down the Wind, which was made into film starring her daughter Hayley Mills; Australian actors Yvette Anning, who had worked with Fay Compton in Pantomime, and Guy Hastings, Bruno Barnabe, Mary Charles, designer Stafford Hilliard and his wife Ann Codrington, Peter Dearing, Michael Wilding and Jack McNaughton. The whole company was talented and experienced. Their performances were polished and they were looking forward to the tour and the escape from the grimness of events that were unfolding in Europe.

Fay Compton’s tour began at the Kings Theatre, Melbourne with a performance of Victoria Regina. It premiered on 24 October, 1937. It was well received and ran until 14 December. Fay Compton was a ‘triumph’ while Jack and the rest of the company did some ‘sterling work’ according to The Argus. Then from 18 December 1937 they performed Tonight at 8:30 at the same venue.

Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 is a cycle of 10 one act plays; We Were Dancing, Red Peppers, Shadow Play, Family Album, The Astonished Heart, Hands Across the Sea, Fumed Oak, Ways and Means, Still Life and Star Chamber. The cycle was first produced in Manchester in 1935, then London in 1936 before touring simultaneously in New York, Canada and Australia between 1936 and 1938. Fay Compton’s tour performed Red Peppers, Hands Across the Sea and Still Life.

‘Red Peppers’ was the surprise of the evening, with its hearty music-hall vulgarity and its equally hearty plot. This is another of [Noel] Coward’s character pieces with music and songs to fit Miss Compton who gave herself to the part whole-heartedly -tap-dancing and all with an adept partner, Mr. Jack McNaughton, she carried it through to its slap-stick conclusion without a breather, enthused The Melbourne Argus in December 1937.

While they were in Melbourne a few of the company, including Jack stayed at the Art Nouveau pile, Milton House. Architects Sydney Smith and Ogg built Milton House on Flinders Lane in 1901 as a private hospital for prominent local surgeon William Moore. It later became government offices.

Early in 1938 the company traveled to New Zealand and performed at the Grand Opera House, Wellington – Victoria Regina from March 5 and George and Margaret from April 16 – before returning to Australia to perform at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. Victoria Regina was staged at the Theatre Royal from 16 May 1938 in tandem with George & Margaret, which won some good reviews.  Jack was well received as the eligible bachelor opposite Hayley Bell’s Frankie. In July the company was also performing Tonight at 8:30 (Hands Across the Sea, Still Life and Red Peppers) in which Jack was ‘convincing’ as George Pepper according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Stafford Hilliard and Jack McNaughton in George and Margeret Sydney 1938
Stafford Hilliard and Jack McNaughton in George and Margeret Sydney 1938

When they arrived in Sydney from Brisbane in May 1938 the company attended a reception at the Australia Hotel. It was organised by JC Williamson Ltd, the theatrical promotions firm responsible for delivering the tour, and hosted by its managing director E J Tait and his wife. Among the guests was well-known Australian radio announcer and broadcaster Charles Cousens who made an onstage presentation to Fay Compton at the end of the run. Cousens was a news commentator on Macquarie Broadcasting Services radio station 2GB, still a popular Sydney radio station. He ran a programme called Radio Newspaper of the Air in which listeners, including children, were encouraged to ring in with any news stories they came across. Cousens also broadcast commentaries on topical events. Jack was to meet Charles Cousens again six years later – in very different circumstances.

They were back in Melbourne in July 1938 to perform George and Margaret at the King’s Theatre. Jack’s performance wasn’t as well received as it had been in Sydney. He was described as very unhappy as the lover who carries off Frankie and, according to the reviewer romance wasn’t in his line – The Melbourne Argus again. Perhaps by this time the actors were tiring and looking forward to leaving for home.

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