The legendary theatre couple who visited Blackpool twice to appear at The Grand

By Barry Band

Saturday, 12th June 2021, 4:55 am

It seems we have readers in America. They will likely be erudite students of theatre so let’s not disappoint!

The days are long gone since the world’s top stage stars stepped off the London train on Sunday evening to prepare for a week at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool

But none were greater than Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who in 2014 were named Broadway’s number one acting couple of all time by Theatremania, of New York.

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Lynn Fontanne and her husband Alfred Lunt in 1952. Photo: Getty Images
Lynn Fontanne and her husband Alfred Lunt in 1952. Photo: Getty Images

Today’s story is how this legendary couple, who several times visited Britain, twice came to appear in our little Victorian playhouse on the north west coast of England.

Alfred Lunt (1892-1977) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Lynn Fontanne (1887-1983) from Woodford, Essex, had a “lavender” marriage (look it up) to protect their reputation of being “the ideal American couple.” It was obviously a comfortable arrangement because it lasted 55 years.

Their Broadway stage triumphs included Arms and the Man in 1925, Pygmalion in 1926, Design for Living (with Noel Coward) in 1933, The Taming of the Shrew in 1935, The Seagull in 1938, and in 1940 the first of the two plays that brought them to Blackpool.

It was Robert E. Sherwood’s There Shall Be No Night, a drama that examined the conflict of loyalties as war broke out.

Lynn Fontanne retained her British citizenship and it was, perhaps, the reason the Lunts brought the play in wartime to London’s Aldwych Theatre and a provincial tour by the leading British production house of HM Tennant Ltd.

Tennants favoured the Grand Theatre for three decades and during the war Blackpool’s population was boosted by Government offices and armed forces units in training, while only 12 miles down the road there was a huge USAF Base Depot.

Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne appeared in There Shall Be No Night, at the Grand for a week in May, 1944. Posters and Press ads proclaimed it as the most brilliant play of the London season.

Their second visit to the Grand was in January, 1958, in Time and Again, a dramatic play by Friedrich Durrenmatt. Tennant Productions were again in charge and their director was the brilliant Peter Brook.

The Gazette’s Brian Hargreaves (later editor) wrote: “The true magic of the theatre, so rarely manifest, is present throughout this weird and wonderful play.”

Lynn Fontanne played a rich and unscrupulous woman who arrived in the withered little German town of her birth on a warped mission to find her first love, who had deserted her.

A fantastic figure, she stepped from a train with a retinue that included a pet panther, two hired killers and two blind eunuchs.

She was feted by the poverty-stricken populace, who appointed a seedy but popular shopkeeper (Alfred Lunt) as their intermediary.

The man was the lover who had deserted her and she proposed a damnable deal in which he was the sacrifice in return for a vast endowment on the town. It was a frightening study of corruption.

Brian Hargreaves wrote: “Great performances are given by the Lunts - she imperious, ruthless, evil and coldly beautiful; he an amoral, shambling, easily-pleased peasant who is pitched into a nightmare.

“Many of their scenes together will live long in the memory.”

After a tour of several weeks the Lunts returned to New York with the play re-titled The Visit, and on May 5, 1958, it opened the new Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, previously the Globe.

Two years later they returned in the play to London, where it opened the new Royalty Theatre.