OBITUARY : Joan Sterndale Bennett
Tuesday 30 April 1996
Did not Vida Hope, its director, threaten violence towards any members of the Players' Theatre Company who showed the least sign of guying their roles? Did not Sandy Wilson throw a fit in New York when the staging began to verge on the satirical? Has it not been a critical knee-jerk reaction in subsequent revivals that they have not been played straight enough?
It is as well, therefore, to remember that The Boy Friend did not bowl everybody over on its first outing - and the reason was that however "serious" the performers thought they were being, they were not being serious enough. There was, however, one distinguished exception. It was Joan Sterndale Bennett. Her imperious performance as the French headmistress Madame Dubonnet rose to the occasion with a meticulous discipline and admirable solemnity as being the work of an actress with a sure sense of style.
One critic, for whom the "stylised coyness and affectations" did not seem as funny as they should have done, picked out Sterndale Bennett as having given the "outstanding performance in style" because she played "straight".
But what is style? Like the word "classic" today it can be anything you want it to mean. What it meant at the birth of The Boy Friend was contained in the acting of Sterndale Bennett and in the dreams of Vida Hope which many people considered to be fulfilled; but straightness isn't as easy to do as many people think. It is so much more than a straight face or restraining one's temptation to share the joke with the audience. It is a theatrical virtue which may indeed have vanished with the demise of intimate revue; and Sterndale Bennett had it to a tee.
The clue may lie in sincerity, in being cruelly fond of your part rather than patronising it, and as Madame Dubonnet (for whom Sandy Wilson had originally thought of Hattie Jacques), redoubtable head of the finishing school in the South of France whose giggling pupils abruptly shut up whenever she appeared, Sterndale Bennett's authority was all the funnier for never allowing her dignity to weaken - not even when she came on through the French windows and recoiled at the sight of her old flame, Polly's father, Percival. Then came their charming duet (with the equally solemn Fred Stone as the long-lost lover), "Fancy Forgetting".
After the expanded production eventually transferred from the Players' Theatre to the West End by way of Swiss Cottage (Embassy) came the record- breaking five-year run. Sterndale Bennett might not have been in the transfer since she was by then touring in a West End try-out which fortunately for nearly everyone never reached town.
Although her part has been described as "vampish and voluptuous", Sterndale Bennett's only concession to such notions was a hugely authentic-sounding French accent and some business with a rose which she planted in the front of her dress.
It was her discovery of dusty volumes of Play Pictorial from the 1920s which helped to put the cast in the period picture, though Sterndale Bennett, whose stepmother, Mary Bennett, happened to be in charge of the Players' wardrobe at the time, had got it, so to speak, in one.
But then she was already a veteran of pre-war West End intimate revues, working in many of the Herbert Farjeon shows, sometimes with the best, among them Jack Buchanan and Elsie Randolph in This'll Make You Whistle (Palace 1936), Cyril Ritchard and Hermione Baddeley in Nine Sharp (Little, 1938), Wilfrid Hyde White in In Town Again (Criterion, 1940), Edith Evans, Joyce Grenfell and Peter Ustinov in Diversion (Wyndham's) and Max Adrian and Vida Hope in Light and Shade (Ambassador's, 1942).
Sterndale Bennett was also a "straight" actress in the purely legitimate sense in a few notable productions such as Goldoni's Mine Hostess (Arts, 1944), with Alastair Sims in Bridie's play with music Forrigan Reel (Sadler's Wells, 1945) and Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon's Christmas play The Glass Slipper (St James's, 1945).
Having been a pillar of the Players' Theatre Club with its neo-Victorian music-hall bills and deadpan annual pantomimes since 1938, she stayed there for almost the rest of her days, a joyously haughty presence in many a pantomime in need of a touch of comic gravitas.
Of those days she once remarked: "We were used to doing things absolutely right. To hell with whether a hairstyle suited you or not as long as it was correct. I always said: 'If you wear the correct hairstyle, you can look marvellous; if you wear what you think suits you, you'll look stupid.' "
After the years in The Boy Friend she did a few other musicals, including a Broadway show, Time Gentlemen Please! (1961), and Sandy Wilson's short- lived Divorce Me, Darling (Players', 1964), though she was not in the West End transfer. Other "straighter" West End credits included Barefoot in the Park (Piccadilly, 1966) and the record-breaking No Sex Please, We're British.
Born in London into a musical family in 1914, Joan Sterndale Bennett studied for the stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made her first appearance in rep at Worthing in 1933 in Strange Orchestra; but she was ever more at home on the lyric stage, especially in intimate revue, and never to be forgotten for those who had the chance to remember her in Sandy Wilson's 1952 Watergate revue See You Again, as a spinster passionately declaring her love for the contemporary radio and television personality Gilbert Harding.
She was briefly married in the Second World War to the actor John Barron but the death of Vida Hope in a car accident in 1963 was something she "never got over".
Joan Sterndale Bennett, actress: born London 5 March 1914; married John Barron (marriage dissolved); died Hayling Island, Hampshire 27 April 1996.
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