It’s not easy being the first

. . . you find someone else with a slightly higher profile got there before you.

It’s not that I thought nobody had ever written a book about the history of acting before, though until I was browsing yesterday in the National Theatre bookshop I hadn’t actually come across one.

Needless to say I don’t expect to compete with Peter Ackroyd, one of the most distinguished – and prolific – writers of history and in particular of London alive today. I’m reading his book now, which may be a mistake as it may (or just may not) cover the same ground I’m tentatively treading on.

All I can say in my defence is that I used to be an actor and Peter Ackroyd – to my knowledge – never was.

PS If you want to follow the book as I write it do please subscribe to me FREE on Substack.

The Humbling of Meredith Martin


The Humbling of Meredith Martin is book five in my Modern Women Breaking the Mould series. It tells the story of an ambitious actress struggling to achieve the stardom she believes she deserves by any means possible. If that entails gate-crashing auditions or upstaging her fellow performers, so be it.

‘It was how the theatre worked, was Meredith’s view. A girl had to take chances, grab opportunities as and when she could, using guerrilla tactics where necessary. Meekness in the theatre did not inherit anything.’

Available as an ebook from Amazon
and in print from Waterstones, Foyles, Barnes & Noble & Booktopia

Vanya: the one-man Chekov

‘Uncle Vanya’ is a play very dear to my heart. Many decades ago I played Sonya in rep at Harrogate Playhouse. I had only just started out as a professional actress, with no training other than getting out there and doing it, and while I have no idea if I was any good or not I identified with Sonya totally and utterly: the plain, naive girl who falls in unrequited love with a man who looks on her as no more than a friend, and a child to boot.

More recently I booked to see the play in the West End but was thwarted when Covid shut down the theatres the day before I was due to see it in March 2020. Fortunately that production, with Toby Jones as Uncle Vanya, was subsequently filmed, so I was able to watch it over and over until I knew every word, every movement by heart. It was a wonderful production and featured Aimee Lou Wood as a heartbreaking Sonya.

The play also features very strongly in my current novel-in-progress. My central character is an actress who thinks she is the bees’ knees until she is put very firmly in her place by a Russian disciple of the great Stanislavsky. When asked to act the part of Sonya in a demonstration of the famous System she is bullied into a realisation that acting is more than just walking onto a stage and projecting your lines to the furthest row of the gallery. Through the medium of honest, homespun Sonya the sophisticated, haughty Meredith learns something not just about herself but about the whole business of acting itself.

So when I heard that Andrew Scott was to play every part in a one-man production of the play my first thought was, Why?

Duke of Yorks theatre poster

The answer is partly because Andrew Scott, in an albeit restricted run, is able to sell out a West End theatre where the cheapest available ticket is £120.

One hundred and twenty pounds.

But then I read the reviews, first in What’s On Stage and elsewhere, in which the reviewers dispelled all my doubts. I knew I had to see the thing. But at £120??

Fortuitously this production is mounted by the same company, ATG, as my missed Uncle Vanya, for which I dimly remembered I was in receipt of a voucher. That reduced the cost of the ticket by around a third, which mean my seat in row K of the stalls only cost me around £80.

So what of the production?

I have loved and not loved Andrew Scott in the past. I did not love his Gary Essendine in Present Laughter at the Old Vic, but I did love his lockdown performance in Three Kings at the same theatre, filmed and transmitted live. There’s no doubting his extraordinary talent.

First of all, you really need to know the play before you see this version. Set in the present in Ireland, it is confusing, at least to begin with. Who is Michael? (Astrov) And who is Ivan? (Vanya, of course) Scott signals his switch of roles partly by use of props – he fingers his necklace as Helena and wipes his hands on a cloth as Sonya; Vanya toys with sunglasses and Vanya’s mother Maureen smokes cigarettes. Helena speaks RP and her husband Alexander has what sounds like a pompous Ulster twang. It is very subtle – so subtle in parts that it was difficult to hear the dialogue, though Scott does have the ability to whisper on stage and be audible – and at times very funny. The adaptation by the supremely talented Simon (Curious Incident, to name one) Stephens is deft and fluent and artfully edited down to just under two hours without a break.

Uncle Vanya, 2020 production (Official London Theatre)

In the end though, does it offer up anything new about the play? You have to admire the performance, that goes without saying. However it’s my view that Andrew Scott is always even at his best just a little mannered, and some of his mannerisms – hands over the face, wiping the eyes wearily – do not seem to be fixed to one particular character. Yes, it is extremely moving at times, but ultimately it struck me as above all a masterclass by an actor at the top of his game. For a definitive version of a great play, give me Toby Jones and his fellow actors any day.

When famous people appear in your novel

The first real person to appear in a novel of mine was Noel Coward. He wasn’t planned, or strictly speaking invited, he just appeared at a party given by my protagonist Claudia’s daughter and her husband in The Awakening of Claudia Faraday. He and Claudia formed a warm relationship and she even gave him the title for his first play, The Vortex, and the idea for his film Brief Encounter. (Both these events needless to say were fictional.)

Noel Coward 1925 (Wikipedia)

In my second novel The Purpose of Prudence de Ville Prue found herself working as the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell’s dresser and confidante, until she was sacked. She went on to hobnob with the likes of Mrs Millicent Fawcett, founder of the suffragist movement, Lady Ottoline Morrell, the well-known socialite, and through Mrs Morrell, members of the Bloomsbury Group such as John Maynard Keynes – to whom she was briefly engaged. (That too was fictional.)

Violet in The Makings of Violet Frogg worked for the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who built Her Majesty’s Theatre and founded RADA – then ADA – in the Dome. She also rubbed shoulders with Bernard Shaw and attended suffragette meetings presided over by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Cristobel, the latter of whom also makes a guest appearance in my novel-in-progress The Humbling of Meredith Martin, as does the theatre director Harley Granville Barker and the actress Edith Wynne Matthison.

Other celebrities also appear in my books under thin disguises: Claudia Faraday is Clarissa Dalloway, from Virginia Woolf’s novel, her gardener Sellers is a reference to Lady Chatterley’s Mellors. Mrs Morphett in my third novel Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons, first name Phillicent, is a Spooner version of Millicent Fawcett.

Statue of Millicent Fawcett in Westminster Square

Am I breaking any rules here? I hope not. I went to a lot of effort to research these people and they are represented in my books as accurately as I could make them. In this I believe I am breaking fewer rules than writers who write biopics that knowingly distort the facts. (I could name some but I won’t.)

Featuring real people is not just fun, they add substance and context to a book that is set in the past. Anyone who is familiar with Coward or Mrs Pat or Tree or Barker will I hope recognise this and appreciate that by featuring them in my made-up stories I am in a sense acting as their publicist, with the best motives.

Coward had an uncanny understanding of older women, so it makes sense that this might have come from his meeting with Claudia Faraday. Mrs Patrick Campbell overcame huge odds and the almost permanent absence of a husband whose name she used even after his death, to become one of the West End’s most celebrated actresses, and by portraying her through the doting Prudence’s eyes I have tried to convey some of the hardships she underwent.

John Maynard Keynes was happily bisexual before he became happily married, though not to Prudence of course, so why shouldn’t he have enjoyed an eleventh hour flirtation with her? Herbert Tree was a genial genius, a philanderer, unfaithful to his wife yet loyal to everyone else and seemingly loved by everyone, including his wife. So why shouldn’t he invite young and green Violet to lunch and flirt with her? (That’s all he did.)

Mrs Pat and Herbert Tree, the original Eliza and Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion. The slipper-throwing is part of the script but apparently Tree objected to the force of Mrs Pat’s bowling arm so she was told to tone it down, thus effectively defeating the purpose of the exercise.

Millicent Fawcett was a well-bred woman who stayed true to her belief that women’s suffrage could be achieved through peaceful means, and Harley Granville Barker, actor, writer and manager of the Court Theatre (now the Royal Court) was in his unassuming way instrumental in revolutionising theatre in the early twentieth century and introducing the notion of the theatre director.

So if nothing else, by including these luminaries in my books I hope I am introducing the readers to fascinating characters they might not otherwise have been aware of. Call it homage from an ordinary writer to extraordinary personalities, call it the writer’s aid, they are portrayed as authentically as possible (within the bounds of fiction), and with great respect, admiration and a lot of affection.

© Patsy Trench

The history of theatre

What’s the history of theatre doing on my website?

I just closed down my theatre tours website. I’ve been organising tours and teaching theatre here in London on and off for around thirty years. I have been steeped in theatre all my life from the age of 17 when I went to work for the Company Manager at the Royal Shakespeare Company, then based at the Aldwych Theatre, after which I found a job in repertory theatre in Harrogate, initially as an Assistant Stage Manager and then as an actress, in which profession I remained for nearly 20 years before I began to have a family and turned to writing instead.

Theatre plays a major role in my later novelsViolet Frogg and Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons in particular – and indeed in my work in progress, provisionally titled The Humbling of Meredith Martin (out later this year, with a bit of luck). Violet, like me, finds herself working for what was in Edwardian times called the Acting Manager in a company run by Herbert Beerbohm Tree before going on – not like me – to become a theatre producer. Meredith is a working actress who, like me, experiences intermittent success but is yet to become a leading light in the West End, or of anywhere else.

The marvel of theatre is that it still exists

In fact it thrives, despite growing competition from first radio and then film, television and now streaming services and social media. To do so it has reinvented itself, found new forms of material and staging, incorporating new technology such as sophisticated projection and motion capture. Yet the fundamental premise of ‘Two planks and a passion’, now purloined by skiers apparently but which originated with the Mystery Plays of the late Middle Ages, still survives, as often as not in a grungy room above a pub in a London suburb.

So I have now incorporated my theatre tour activities into this website here, because my involvement in and my love of theatre are now very much a part of my writing activities. I welcome comments or questions about theatre and its history, and for what it’s worth here is a list of some of the best books I have come across in my researches, beginning with the five most useful books about Edwardian theatre that I posted on another site.

© Patsy Trench
January 2023

Don’t put your daughter on the stage …

… Mrs Worthington’, wrote Noel Coward.

I spent the first twenty odd years of my life as an actress, with mixed success. Since giving up acting theatre has remained one way of another a driving force of my working life; initially as a scriptwriter, a playscout and script editor, and latterly a teacher and lecturer in theatre. So it is not surprising to find the theatre world creeping into my novels.

The writer as Clea in Peter Schaffer’s Black Comedy, Melbourne & Sydney, Australia

It began with the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell, who appeared without notice in book two of my Modern Women series, The Purpose of Prudence de Vere. (I say without notice because her presence was not exactly planned; she just emerged, as characters – real or imaginary – tend to do in novels.) The theatre played an even bigger role so to speak in book three, The Makings of Violet Frogg, when Violet, separated from her husband and looking for a job, found herself working for the famous actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree. It’s no wonder then that book four, Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons, is all about the theatre.

Actors are glamorous creatures, are they not? Up there on stage looking glorious, the eyes of an audience of thousands focused on them, the centre of attention wherever they go. What a wonderful life it is to be an actor!

Well, yes but then no.

In the course of my researches into the lives of actors in the past I was intrigued to discover how similar their experiences were in many ways to my own. The struggle to find work; days and weeks spent on tour tramping the streets looking for digs – actors were not welcome in many provincial towns and you don’t have to go that far back to see signs on the windows of boarding houses: ‘No blacks, no Irish, no actors’; agents who promised the earth and then vanished from it; dodgy managers who quietly climbed out of the windows of the theatres at the end of the run without paying their actors; starvation, penury, misery, freezing dressing rooms . . .

I am talking here about the jobbing actor of course, such as Jerome K Jerome, who spent a couple of years trying to be an actor before, wisely, moving on to greener pastures.[1] There’s plenty to be found about the stars, the Henry Irvings and Ellen Terrys and Herbert Trees. The jobbing actor doesn’t tend to get a look-in, either back in Edwardian times or indeed now. And the jobbing, and largely unemployed, actor represents around 80% of the acting profession at any one time.

The characters of Merry and Gaye, who feature briefly in The Makings of Violet Frogg and reappear centre stage in Mrs Morphett, are loosely based on two real-life actresses of the Edwardian period: one of whom was the daughter of society parents and ignorant of the business, the other who was born into it and began performing in music hall as a child.[2] They represent quite different approaches to the profession: one (Merry) has devoted her whole life to becoming an actress, to the extent that she has been disowned by her family; the other (Gaye) goes about her work almost grudgingly, looking for ways of getting out of the business – or at least away from the chorus – but not quite knowing what else she is capable of doing. (Marriage, the obvious solution, is not the answer.)

The one abiding characteristic, which is shared by so many down the years, from Meredith to myself and unknown thousands of others, is the passion, the willingness to sacrifice everything in order to act. Fame is not the prime motivation in most cases, surprisingly. Nor is money. It is something much deeper and harder to define. A need to be the centre of attention, if briefly, maybe. To get into the skin of another person, definitely. (Many if not most actors are shy, believe it or not.) To be able to transform yourself into someone braver, cleverer, funnier, sexier and more interesting than you are: someone created by someone else. That’s much nearer the mark. To think that so many men and women have willingly subjected themselves to humiliation, poverty, starvation, indifference and despair in order to be given the opportunity to play someone else. That is what makes actors so utterly, weirdly, absurdly fascinating.

© Patsy Trench
London, March 2022

This blog post first appeared on

[1] As recorded in his hilarious book On The Stage And Off

[2] Gertrude Kingston & Mrs Charles Calvert, as recorded in their respective memoirs Curtsey While You’re Thinking and Sixty-Eight Years On The Stage

Publication day!

MRS MORPHETT’S MACAROONS is published today.

Available as an ebook and paperback on Amazon. The Book Depository,
Waterstone’s, Barnes & Noble, Booktopia & Angus & Robertson

© Patsy Trench
30 December 2021

Failure and success: in praise of the long-term persister

I once tried to sell the idea to a newspaper of a series of articles under the title ‘Long-term failures’.

It was intended as the antidote to the notion of the  ‘overnight success’: the author whose debut novel had won the Booker Prize, notwithstanding the fact that this was his twenty-fifth novel and it had already been turned down by thirty-nine publishers. Or the actress who was starring in her first film having spent the previous twenty-odd years working steadily if anonymously in theatre and television.

Needless to say no newspaper took up my offer. I suspect it was the title that did it. No one really wants to read about failure, do they?

I was reminded of this while working on my book ‘Theatrical Women’. It’s a random collection of bits of pieces gleaned from my researches into the actors and actresses of Edwardian theatre.

It’s easy enough to find books written about the Greats, such as Ellen Terry or Herbert Tree or Mrs Patrick Campbell. But I really wanted to hear about the people who didn’t make it for one reason or another, or who never reached what we call the big time.

I eventually managed to lay my hands on a few memoirs written by people such as Jerome K Jerome – yes, he had a brief and little-known career as an actor – George Arliss (who did make it), Robert Courtneidge (father of Cicily), Joe Graham, Gertrude Kingston and various others, all describing their early struggles to make a life on the stage. And as I was reading I couldn’t help thinking –

Aren’t stories about failure that much more interesting than tales of success?

Admittedly it was the disasters that particularly intrigued me. The ‘sham’ agents who charged the would-be actor a fortune in return for the promise of a part on the West End, and then vanished. The tour managers who vamoosed at the end of the week with the takings, sometimes having to escape through a window when the actors locked him in his room. The actors who had to walk twenty miles between gigs because their salaries did not cover train tickets. Or who slept under bridges because no landlady wanted a bar of them. (Often understandably: either they drank away the week’s takings in lieu of rent, or they were victims of the unscrupulous or inefficient manager who couldn’t afford to pay them in the first place.) The elderly – usually -actors who set themselves up as elocution and acting teachers and, as George Arliss remarked, taught their students to speak in a manner never heard before on stage or off.

Of course those are not so much failures as struggles, the sort of obstacles every young person encounters early in her or his career, only worse, much worse. The point is these people persisted, despite starvation, humiliation, rejection and near destitution, and while some of them went on to better things many of them did not.

But isn’t there something fascinating, and heartening, about the person who persists? Who is still trying to pass his driving test after a dozen failures? Who still participates in athletic competitions even when they are past their best? Who is still determined to find a distributor for their film after thirty years of trying?

I don’t find these people pathetic, far from it. In many senses I regard myself as one of them.  Persistence, no matter what profession you pursue, is not just a virtue, it’s a necessity. I once met a film producer whom I won’t name who achieved huge success despite in my view having no talent whatsoever. When I got to observe him working I realise what he lacked he made up for, several times over, with persistence. He would not take no for an answer.

So here’s to all the long-term persisters – I won’t call them failures. It takes guts to be a persister, and a certain self-belief that is entirely endearing. Not to mention the huge lessons we learn, and keep on learning, along the way.

May we rejoice in never achieving our goals.