Wild Oats or The Strolling Gentleman

by John O’Keeffe

directed by Mollie Manns

Performed in the open-air at

Mottisfont Abbey


15th to 25th July 1998

John O’Keeffe

"An English Moliére’ according to William Hazlitt was in fact born in Abbey Street, Dublin in 1747. As a child he studied drawing, learnt Greek, Latin and French and read Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Congreve and Farquhar. He began his stage career playing comedy roles with a Dublin company and then took to writing plays full-time because of failing eyesight (which gradually led to his becoming totally blind in 1798). In 1762 he went to London for the first time, living with an uncle and aunt. He roamed round London, drew a great deal, went to the theatre including seeing Garrick play Lear and wrote his first play, a comedy, The Generous Lovers. The play was never performed and the MS is lost. In all he wrote more than seventy dramas, farces, pantomimes and comic operas of which the best known is Wild Oats, for which he received 450 guineas. His main successes were during the late 1770’s including Tony Lumpkin In Town and The Son-in-Law.

He married Mary Heaphy in 1774 and they had three children, Gerald, who died in infancy, John Tottenham and Adelaide. In 1783 he moved to Acton where he sat in the corner of a large garden and dictated the plays and operas to John, his son. He was a writer respected by both Congreve and Sheridan and much later in his Recollections O’Keeffe writes “Perhaps I may not be accused of much vanity when I state that Sheridan often gave his full opinion, that I was the first that turned the public taste from the dullness of sentiment, into which it was rapidly failing, towards the sprightly channel of comic humour; and that I was the only one that could do this.” After spending most of his life around the London and Dublin theatres he moved to Chichester and then intending to retire in Sidmouth he and daughter Adelaide stopped in Southampton on the way. He was by now old and frail and they decided they liked the area so much, they took up residence in Bedford Place, an area described as “near Southampton”. He wrote some poems there and his daughter read him novels of Sir Walter Scott. In St. Ronan’s Well Scott had written “From Shakespeare to O’Keeffe”. O’Keeffe remarked “Ah! The top and bottom of the ladder; he might have shoved me a few sticks higher.”

He died at Bedford Cottage (now Bassils the Chemists) and was buried at All Saints Church in Back of the Walls, there being no Roman Catholic church in Southampton (the nearest being at Winchester) in 1833. His tombstone was probably destroyed by vandals at the end of the 19th century. There was an interesting article about O’Keeffe and the period when he lived in Southampton in the Hampshire Magazine June 1992 edition, written by John Edgar Mann, entitled “The Forgotten Poet of Bedford Place”

About the play

The play was first performed at the Covent Garden Theatre, London in 1791. It was written some time after the great period of Restoration Comedy, and while similar in style it has a subtler and less bawdy touch. The play was written before O’Keeffe came to live in Hampshire but it contains many local references such as Sir George Thunder who says he lives “half a league this side of Gosport”, the play’s actor hero Charles Rover tells Harry Thunder “the bills are already up with our names tonight to play at Winchester” and the villain, appropriately named Farmer Gammon is referred to as “a Hampshire Hog”. From other references in the text it seems certain that the play is set in and near Stockbridge, and the coach inn scene is probably at the Grosvenor Hotel. Like his contemporary, Sheridan, O’Keeffe liked to use play on words and Rover has a constant flow of quotations from plays which he has performed, mainly Shakespeare and other early 18th century writers. The play is particularly well constructed with a steady flow of characters, including sailors, ruffians, theatre types, Quakers, and all the strands and subplots fall into place with a neat denouement. The play is based on eight locations during the fifteen scenes and early performances were reputed to last up to four hours, most of which was probably spent changing the sets! We will use the minimum of scenery to indicate the various locations leaving your imagination to fill in the details and the performances should run for around two hours plus the interval.

The play tells the story of how Rover, the star of a travelling troupe of actors, takes the role of his friend Harry Thunder, presents himself as a suitor to Harry’s cousin, the Quaker Lady Amaranth and by so doing sets in motion a whole series of mistaken identities and ingenious intrigues. Regular visitors to our productions at Mottisfont may remember a similar set of mistaken identities from our production of The Beaux Stratagem by George Farquhar some ten years ago.

Cast (in order of speaking)
John Dory John Carrington
Sir George Thunder Albie Minns
Ephraim Smooth Graham Buchanan
Lady Amaranth  Belinda Drew
Sarah Emma Carrington
Muz Carl Donnington
Harry Thunder Alec Walters
Rover Paul Mills
Farmer Gammon David Pike
Sim Paul Taylor
Jane Sophie Scott
Banks Harry Tuffill
Twitch Alan Watson
Landlady Christine Baker, Mollie Manns
Mistress Trap Hazel Burrows
Lamp Ken Hann
Maid at Inn Helen White
Amelia Sarah Lynn
First Ruffian Paul Baker
Second Ruffian Bruce Atkinson
Third Ruffian Matthew Tuffill
Sheriff’s Officer Derek Leslie
Villagers etc Brenda Atkinson, Amber Holloway, Sarah O’Leary, Nick Osmond, Cameron Shiell, Kate Ward
For the Maskers
Director Mollie Manns
Assistant to Director Christine Baker
Costumes Serena Brown, Sandy Harlow, Kate Ward
Sound Lawrie Gee, Carmen Ortigosa, Antoinette Slaven
Lighting Clive Weeks, Tony Lawther, and Nathan Weeks assisted by others
Properties Ella Lockett, Irene Shiell, Gill Buchanan
Wigs Showbiz
Set Design and Construction Douglas Shiell, Brian Langford, Cameron Shiell, Amy Langford, Geoff Cook
Stage Manager Angie Barks
Deputy Stage Manager Martin Ingoe
Front of House Managers Ron Tillyer, Julia Jupp, Val Barwell
Stewards The Maskers
Programme Design Harry Tuffill
Marketing and Publicity Harry Tuffill, Geoff Wharam
Furniture Amber Antiques, Portswood


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Established 1968

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