Light fantastic, Laurie Atkinson

The Pollards: A family and its child and adult opera companies in New Zealand and Australia 1880-1910
Peter Downes
Steele Roberts, $39.95,
ISBN 1877228737

Shakespeare got in a snit with them and had Rosencrantz compare them to noisy young birds of prey. Ben Jonson wrote plays for them. Dickens made fun of them. Prime Minister William Pitt eagerly joined a glittering opening night audience at Drury Lane to witness a production of Hamlet in which the gloomy Dane was performed by “the Young Roscius”, 13-year-old Master William Betty.

The fashion for professional child actors performing roles written for adults finally disappeared by the 1920s and has, mercifully, not been seen since with the possible exception of the spoof gangster musical film Bugsy Malone. However, this form of entertainment was extremely popular in the 19th century with numerous companies of child actors touring many parts of the globe. One company that was apparently as good as any at the time became a household name in this country. Though it originated in Australia, New Zealand later became the company’s home base, with many of its performers recruited here. This company, first known as “Pollard’s Liliputians”, brought high professional standards to a popular form of entertainment, light comic opera. Peter Downes relates the saga of the company’s fascinating 30-year history with skill and plenty of interesting details, stories, and accounts of the productions, all of which are supported by the excellent photographs and prints that appear on nearly every page.

Reports from London, New York and Melbourne of juvenile Pinafore companies doing excellent business reached a Tasmanian music teacher and piano tuner, James Pollard. In 1880, after a successful production in Launceston of an adult version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, he decided to produce a juvenile version, using his two younger daughters in the leading roles, supported by a large cast of other children, aged from four to 14. Thus “Pollard’s Liliputians” was born. The company lasted in various forms, both adult and juvenile, until Tom Pollard called it a day in 1910, when the public’s taste for the “flickers” and vaudeville took their toll. Incidentally, Tom, who was largely responsible for the success of this theatrical phenomenon, was not himself a member of the vast Pollard family. He changed his surname from O’Sullivan to Pollard for the sake of uniformity in the publicity, all the other members of the orchestra in which he played being Pollard brothers and sisters. He did, however, marry one of his boss’s daughters.

The Pollards arrived for their first New Zealand tour in Bluff in 1881, and from then on there were numerous tours up and down the country, port by port, until rail and road travel became more reliable. They were a tough lot. They played in sweltering heat in Queensland and Singapore, survived sea sickness, homesickness, fires in South Africa and Palmerston North, an outbreak of cholera on their ship taking them to Singapore, and they were not far from Krakatoa when it erupted. The mysterious death of one of the Pollard brothers in Singapore and charges of kidnapping (which led Mr Pollard to issue a libel writ against the Melbourne Argus for £5000 damages) were further offstage dramas.

The Pollards also had to face what Downes calls “Pollardmania”, when the youngsters had to be smuggled in and out of the theatre to protect them from their fans in Auckland, where they played to full houses every night of the three-week season. That the youngsters were talented performers there is no doubt, and many had successful stage careers as adults. What is not clear is why audiences year after year should be so attracted to light operas – the only fare offered by the Pollards – with children performing roles written for adults, and girls often playing male roles. Peter Downes doesn’t really tackle this question.

The answer seems to be cuteness and precociousness. The Otago Witness suggested that opera-bouffe by children is supported “on account of their quaintness and novelty” (though another reviewer did wonder “how it is possible to train children to such a degree of perfection”). The Lyttelton Times found that “children bring to a stage presentation qualities of freshness and simple earnestness which are irresistible … baby after baby provided fresh delights, although to be perfectly candid, babyhood at times ran to 15 or 16 years”; age problems didn’t, however, concern the reviewer who claimed that “when the darling opens her rosebud mouth to sing we forget all that and wish she would never stop”.

Nor has Downes been able to bring the main participants fully to life. This, however, is hardly his fault. Everyone seems to have been far too busy performing, rehearsing and travelling to keep diaries or write letters. No doubt later world events also prevented many memories being recorded at a time when Victorian entertainment was deemed unimportant.

Tom Pollard and his indefatigable wife Teny were clearly good parents to their own children and to their “adopted” family, and honest employers in a profession not renowned for fair-dealing. Pollard productions were described as “safe from dullness, safe from objectionable matter and equivocal deportment: the management having an unsmirched reputation both on stage and off it.” Reading that, I did wonder about the theatrical temperaments, the backstage jealousies and love-affairs, which tend to flourish in such enclosed communities. However, no objectionable (interesting?) gossip seems to have been recorded or passed down. The only performer who appears to have attracted any sort of offstage comment was the vivacious May Beatty. She was constantly having her weekly shilling’s pocket money withheld because of her irrepressible sense of fun and for “barking like a dog in the most obvious parts”.

By restoring in detail a robust part of our theatrical history, Peter Downes has honoured the memory of a group of Victorian performers who reflected the vitality and resilience of their audiences in the years just before theatrical entertainment ceased to be seen as a social necessity.


Laurie Atkinson reviews theatre for the Dominion Post.


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Posted in Biography, History, Music, Non-fiction, Review
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