Yes, Reg did indeed play Shakespeare. Here he is as the clown or ‘wise fool’ Touchstone, a performance for which he won praise in a 1953 production of As You Like It at the celebrated Mermaid Theatre.
The above booklet, published in 1951 and found among Reg's papers, tells the story of the 20th-century Mermaid Theatre, the life's work of actor Bernard Miles with his wife, Josephine Wilson. His original Mermaid Theatre was a large barn at his house in the St. John's Wood area of London. This seated 200 people, and during 1951 and 1952 was used for concerts, plays and a celebrated opera production of Dido and Aeneas. For the third season in 1953 the Mermaid Theatre was moved to the Royal Exchange in London
Thanks to Reg’s daughter Jeanne I’ve been able to go through some of his papers and photos, including the scrapbook that he kept of reviews of his early shows.
A scene from one of Reg's wartime REME Revels reminiscent of one of the It ain't half hot Mum TV shows. Reg is second from the left
The Boltons Theatre, which had opened on 15 Jan 1947, had a reputation for staging avant-garde or daring productions. The building in Drayton Gardens, South Kensington, had started life in 1911 as the Boltons Picture Playhouse. It was taken over after WW2 by a couple of ex-servicemen, Gunner John Wyse, a former Shakespearean actor and director, and 2nd Lt. Denis Blanckensee. Like Reg they had provided wartime entertainment for troops, and in the post-war period the Boltons Theatre policy was to cast ex-servicemen and women to help revive their careers.
The theatre opened with what was described as a comedy with a musical background entitled The Lake of the Swans. That was followed by the premiere of William Douglas Home’s Now Barrabas, described in retrospect as ‘powerful stuff for the West End in 1947.’ The play was based on the author’s experience in gaol following his court-martial and sentencing to a year’s imprisonment with hard labour in October 1944. He was punished for refusing to carry out military orders during the Allied attack on the French town of Le Havre, orders which in his view would have resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. Among the cast of the 1949 film version was a young Richard Burton.
This cartoon by Arthur Ferrier, showing three members of the cast of the Boltons Revue was published in the weekly magazine Everybody’s, on 7 February 1948
The Revue itself, though praised for its wit and lightheartedness, was notable for its lampooning of topical targets, including the Edwardian stuffiness which still prevailed in the 1940s.
What struck audiences and reviewers about Reg’s performance was his clever use of facial gestures for comic effect. They recognised the impish quality that he brought to the stage, characteristic of the wise clowning seen in Shakespeare’s work. Equipped with a face that had, as one reviewer put it in 1948, ‘the malleability of rubber and the Puckishness of Puck’, Reg was ideally suited to play the role of a witty observer of human folly, encouraging audiences to reflect again and again: ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be!’
Director Bernard Miles — later to be honoured as Baron Miles of Blackfriars CBE — who invited Reg to take the part of Touchstone in his production of As You Like It was in no doubt of his ability.
Another shot of Reg as Shakespeare's clown Touchstone