Drama in Dulcimer Street

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Somewhere in our loft, there is a box containing jigsaws, board games and a very particular pack of ‘Old Maid’ cards dating from the 1940s. This game is played by making up pairs of cards, finally leaving one player holding the ‘Old Maid’.

The pairs in this pack show types of the time, drawn in quasicartoon style – a jolly postman, benign doctor, snooty butler, nursemaid, pilot, land girl, and so on. They last saw the light of day in 2011, during rehearsals for Trevor Nunn’s production of Terence Rattigan’s 1941 play Flare Path at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in which I appeared as Mrs Oakes – ‘the hotelier from hell’, as she was described in the Daily Mail review.

Although the Landlady is not one of the types represented among the playing cards, she was a familiar figure of the time. Her forbidding exterior usually revealed a heart of gold, as it does with Mrs Oakes, whose gruff Yorkshire demeanour serves to hide her emotions as she cares for the pilots of Bomber Command in a hotel in the Lincolnshire Wolds.

The cards caused interest and hilarity during rehearsals, and, as further research, I also looked out a fondly remembered novel, London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins, which is set in a Kennington boarding-house. It begins in 1938, at Christmas, with the threat of war looming, and covers a two-year time-frame, ending at Christmas 1940, only a few months after the first London Blitz. It was fascinating to read it again surrounded by the 1940s props and costumes for Flare Path. As the story unfolded, it began to feel contemporary, rather than the quaint period piece it had seemed the first time I read it. The narrative voice reminded me of the soundtrack of a Pathé newsreel, imparting information in a manner both chummy and confiding.

London Belongs to Me is Norman Collins’s best-known book, first published in 1945, regularly reprinted throughout the fifties and sixties, once i

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About the contributor

Sarah Crowden reviews books for The Lady. The vagaries of freelance life have not, as yet, forced her to take in lodgers.

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