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Beggar's Bush

Comedy in three acts

This play was produced by the White Rose company in Harrogate during the week beginning Monday 22 April 1940, prior to a London run which never took place. (Not the ideal time to launch your career as a playwright!) One further production is recorded at the Colchester Repertory Theatre in 1943. The script was thought to be lost, but John Higgins tracked down a copy in November 2007 in the Lord Chamberlain's Archive at the British Library where it had been submitted for censorship, and it turns out to be a gem. It has now been republished.

A new production took place at the Shaftesbury Arts Centre in October 2011.

Cast lists

  Harrogate, 20 April 1940 Shaftesbury, 12 October 2011
Steve John Nicolson Bryan Farrell
The Professor Sandford Gorton Jerome Swan
Lydia Shelagh Furley Jessica Sims
Pegleg John Barker Philip Elsworth
Thomas Henry Beckett Mark Boyden
Burke O'Malley Trevor Howard Anthony Atwood
Charlie C.B.Pulman Mike Brown
Carol Heather McIntyre Bex Greenway
Maidservant Elinor Waters cut
Radio interviewer uncredited Stephen McDadd

A ‘Beggar’s Bush’ is often thought to be a traditional meeting place for mediaeval beggars, which is how the characters in the play interpret it. There is a well known one in Dublin. An alternative explanation of the phrase, put to me by Neil Howlett who has done extensive research on the term, is that they are simply pieces of marginal land whose owners could make nothing from them and so would be reduced to beggary. Several explanations are offered by William Dargue in an article on Birmingham place names. As well as other examples of the name at Steyning near Brighton, east of Newton Abbott in Devon and beside Presteigne in Powys, there was a Beggar's Bush in North Somerset just south-west of Bristol, used for school playing fields by Clifton College. In the early 1930s Canning worked for the education office in Weston-super-Mare, so it is possible he knew of this one through his work and that it gave him the title and theme of the play.

This is not the first play with this title. There was also a seventeenth century play by Fletcher and Massinger, performed in 1622 and printed in 1647, in which the deposed king of Flanders disguises himself as a beggar.

Canning’s play belongs in a tradition of plays describing working class or Bohemian free spirits being tamed by middle class morality, and their eventual reversion to their original condition. I am reminded of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience and Shaw’s Pygmalion, while Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton embodies something of the same theme in reverse. Another source for the plot might be Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story The Man with the Twisted Lip, in which businessman Neville St Clair is discovered to be the beggar Boone, a role he has adopted as he has found begging in the City to be more profitable than business.

The play begins in a rundown London house where a group of professional beggars meet. These include The Professor whose speciality is writing begging letters to the heirs of people in obituaries pretending to have known the deceased, the enigmatic Charlie who is a pavement artist and supplies racing tips to city businessmen, Burke a young Irish lad who is being taught the trade of begging, and the ambitious Steve. Steve follows Charlie one evening and discovers he has a normal bourgeois home. He tries to force himself into Charlie's family, with upsetting results for his girlfriend Lydia, for Charlie's daughter Carol and, in the end, for the whole group.

The part of Burke was taken by Trevor Howard, then relatively unknown. Ten years later he was to star in the film of Canning's novel The Golden Salamander.

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Beggars Bush Inn sign
Pub sign at Sutton Coldfield, north of Birmingham