Irene Rose Mawer was born on 13 March 1893, to Henry Mawer (Harry) and Rosina Alberta Mawer (née Turner). She grew up in an affluent family in Wandsworth which at the time was in Surrey, but is now in London.
As a baby and toddler, Irene would have been dressed each morning by the household servants in the fashion of the day: a smock-type dress with layers of petticoats underneath, and the full skirt gathered onto a yoked bodice.
Irene wrote that her childhood was spent mostly in a solitary manner, even though she had five siblings, and she entertained herself with little bits of what she called ‘actings’.
School was a happy time for Irene. She excelled in all areas: at the age of 15 she starred as ‘Emma’ in the play version of Jane Austin’s novel; in 1908 she won the School Tennis Championship; and in 1910 she donated the netball cup to the school. In 1909 she acted in an open air performance of Twelfth Night and also played ‘pianoforte’ in a concert. 1910 was Irene’s final year at Putney High School and she received the Old Girls’ Prize for Sketching. This is of particular interest because her first husband, Robert Dale, was an artist with an emphasis on sketching.
Irene had intended to study literature at University, but was prevented from going – possibly due to the death of her father, which was not only emotionally difficult, but also left the family in a much less well off position financially.
Irene undertook lots of concert work, but she could not find employment which really satisfied her. Instead, she enrolled under Elsie Fogerty (Fogie) at the Central School of Speech and Drama which was located in rooms inside the Albert Hall. This was approximately 1911.
Fogie acclaimed Irene Mawer as a ‘born mime’ which rather flummoxed Irene as she wasn’t really sure what a mime was! Fogie didn’t actually teach mime, but if there was a student who needed help with stage movement, expression, etc, then she would ask Irene to help that person.
It was at Central School that Irene Mawer met Ruby Ginner. Ruby was a student of Fogie, but she also gave classes of her own in Classical Greek Dance. Irene went along to learn Greek, and it was then that she realised she would never be a dancer! Instead, she concentrated on the acting, mime and stage side of things.
Ruby Ginner and her friend Hazel Thompson wrote a little mime play and Fogie suggested that Irene would be good in the role of Harlequin. It was this fortuitous casting that lead to the formation of the business partnership and life-long friendship between Irene and Ruby. (Circa 1912)
The drums of war were beginning to sound. Miss Mawer became Mrs Robert Jacomb Norris Dale in 1917. Just ten months later, Dale was killed in action in Italy. A lot is known about him and by all accounts he was a brave man. (There is a book called The Final Whistle by Stephen Cooper which writes about several men killed in the war, and he is one of them.)
By this time, Irene and Ruby had opened the Ginner-Mawer School of Dance and Drama which grew rapidly.
The next pivotal step in Irene’s career came in 1920 when she worked with Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson in The Trojan Women, and Medea. She threw herself into the work to such an extent that she made herself a bit ill from exhaustion!
By 1925 success had come to Ginner-Mawer and by this time, Irene had published her first book, The Dance of Words.
Our first inkling of public awareness of Irene’s exquisite mime talent comes in 1928 when she performed what was to become her defining role, that of Pierrot in L’Enfant Prodigue. By this stage of her life, between the two world wars, things were going well for Irene Mawer, including having found love again. In 1930 she married for the second time, to fellow Londoner, Mark Edward Perugini.
Mark was related by marriage to Charles Dickens. In 1925 Mark had published a book simply called ‘Mime’. Was this inspired by Irene? Was it a token of love? Or was Irene drawn to Mark because he was already interested in mime? We shall never know. We do know, from Irene’s papers, that the couple were blissfully happy and their marriage lasted 18 years, until Mark’s death in 1948.
From 1926-1935 Ginner-Mawer presented annual concerts in Hyde Park and Regent Park, London. The outdoor performances were a great success. World War Two then intervened and forced an evacuation to Boscastle in Cornwall.
Sadly, the school was beginning to fail and the number of students was dropping. The situation with the lack of paying pupils could not continue – the school could not function without the income from students and it was a pointless exercise: an educational establishment with no-one to educate. Something had to change and Irene and Ruby knew it was time to leave Boscastle.
London would have been the obvious choice to re-establish themselves in the heart of the metropolis, but this was not possible because so many of the halls in London had been bombed during WW2 and it was difficult to find somewhere affordable. A new location had to be found and they chose two excellent buildings right in the heart of Cheltenham: the Rotunda, and the Civic Playhouse.
However, the young people of the 1950s didn’t really want to be in Cheltenham, they wanted to be in London. A sixteen year old student who enrolled at the School in 1947 would have been born just before the start of the war and wouldn’t really remember anything else other than rationing and a general lack of ‘colour’ in their everyday lives. Having lived through the hardships of the war, young people were looking for a different life. Soon there would be Teddy Boys with their Rock and Roll and then, as Britain careered towards the Swinging Sixties, there would be the advent of the ‘teenager’ with mini skirts and flower power. The bright young things wanted to be in the city lights of London, they wanted to be modern and Cheltenham just didn’t offer the excitement they were looking for. The days of the School were numbered.
After a busy seven years in Cheltenham, it was time for the swan song of the Ginner-Mawer School of Dance and Drama. Ruby Ginner retired, while Irene carried on working. It is likely that Ruby Ginner would have been well off enough not to have needed to work further, but Irene’s situation was not so comfortable. On the other hand, Irene loved her work, and she was a widow so perhaps she chose to continue with her work out of sheer love for her art and for a way of keeping herself occupied and her mind alive and sharp.
Miss Mawer had great plans for her continuing career and moved to Edgbaston in Birmingham, where she continued with her teaching, producing and public speaking activities. In Birmingham, Irene accepted the position of Senior Tutor and Lecturer at the Birmingham School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art, which was run by Pamela Chapman. The two women had known each other for many years, indeed, when the Birmingham School had opened in 1937, Irene was one of the first guest lecturers.
Miss Mawer was introduced to all of the local theatrical contacts and the leading figures in the world of education – displaying her passion for both the theatre as performance, and for using mime and drama as an educational tool.
This is the end of Part 1 of this article. Part 2 will be posted next week (Tuesday).
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