100 Years On

The success of Wild Oats, the Royal Shakespeare Company's inspired revival of John O'Keefe's wild eighteenth-century comedy, marks a happy coincidence for it's leading player, Alan Howard. Backstage at the Piccadilly Theatre last week, after the opening of the public-demanded West End transfer, he told me of a touching ancestral discovery.

Howard is the great-grandson of the actor-manager Edward Compton, founder and mainstay of the Compton Comedy Company. For years, he had the above drawing of his forbear proudly displayed on his mantelpiece - never understanding the inscription: "I am the bold Thunder." While reading the play (unstaged since 1886) for the RSC, he discovered to his amazement that it is the first line of his own role, the strolling player Jack Rover. Records were dug up, and sure enough Compton himself played Jack Rover at Stratford in 1882 and in London the following year.

Howard felt "spooked" by the whole thing, especially when Mander and Mitchenson, the theatre historians, presented him with a facsimile of the playbill for Compton's first London performance. It was almost to the day 100 years before the date of Howard's birth. Still and all, his family is not otherwise without distinction; he is great-nephew to both Fay Compton and Compton Mackenzie, and on his father's side nephew of Leslie Howard. With relatives like that, who needs managers?

drawing of Edward Compton

The Sunday Times