During his last term at Westminster School in 1925, Esmond went to the Old Vic for the first time, with his mother, to see a performance of A Winter's Tale. As a result, added to his resolve to go on the stage was the conviction that the Old Vic was the place to start, and having been introduced by a family friend to the theatre's manager, Lilian Baylis, he plucked up the courage to ask if there was a chance of becoming a student there. He was rewarded with an audition some days later and on the strength of a very nervous two lines from Henry V ("Once more unto the breech . . .") he was accepted and told to report for rehearsals of The Merchant of Venice at the end of August. The same audition group included Heather Angel and Margaret Rutherford. Meanwhile, he made his first stage appearance before even leaving school, at the Pax Robertson Salon, a small repertory theatre consisting mainly of amateurs which his resourceful mother had discovered. Thus, in a theatre converted from a disused chapel in Chelsea, Esmond made his first ever stage appearance as Old Ekdal in Ibsen's The Wild Duck. No account seems to exist of his performance, but it was valuable practical experience and was soon followed by a part in a light comedy - Goldini's Curiosity.
In August he started work at the Old Vic. "I realised as soon as I had got over the nervousness of the first day's rehearsals that this was the life for me. I had never been so happy. I stayed in the theatre every day as long as I could without appearing too foolish. I arrived at the stage door of the Old Vic long before rehearsals began and went home after everyone else had left." His first role was as Balthazar in The Merchant of Venice, a modest part in a cast which included Edith Evans no less. This was followed by the Marquess of Dorset in Richard III and parts in A Winter's Tale, The Shoeman's Holiday and Trelawny of the Wells. He also appeared as an extra in operas such as Aida, Carmen and Don Giovanni.
A programme from Esmond's second season at the Old Vic - 1926/27.
Esmond's first notice, for his part in Richard III, did not hint at his future success. Theatre critic James Agate, having praised Edith Evans and Balliol Holloway for their performances, added: "But Mr Esmond Knight, as the Marquess of Dorset, reminded us more of the football pitch than a royal palace." This was presumably a reference to his over-muscular legs. However, his athleticism did not fail to impress others, if not the critics. Ninette de Valois, who gave lessons in ballet to students at the time, saw his potential and tried to entice him, unsuccessfully, into training as a ballet dancer. As an actor Esmond must have done something right for he was invited by Lilian Baylis to return for a second season at a salary of £1 a week, this time appearing in Dr Syn, Macbeth (playing at least four parts), King John, A Midsummer Night's Dream and more ballet and extra parts in operas such as Carmen and Lohengrin.
Servant to Macbeth - one of four parts Esmond
played in the 1926/27 Old Vic production.
When the 1926/27 season at the Old Vic came to an end, Esmond began the sometimes arduous task of developing a career as a jobbing actor, doing the rounds of agents' offices and taking any and every opportunity that came his way to gain experience. It wasn't long before he was invited to go on tour with the Birmingham Repertory Company in a play called Yellow Sands. At the time, the Birmingham "Rep" was the best permanent company in the country and fortunately for Esmond the engagement lasted a year, mostly on tour performing in cathedral towns such as Exeter, Gloucester and Lincoln. He played opposite an attractive actress called Frances Clare, two years his senior, who very soon became the focus of his romantic attention. "I had to make love to her. It was fun sitting on the upturned boat in a scene that we had together, plastered with a bronze make-up and having to say all those things to her which I hadn't quite the courage to say offstage."
Back in London, when the run was over, Esmond again found himself "resting" for a while, a situation that never failed to depress him. Then he found work in a number of Sunday productions at the Arts Theatre Club, followed by his first West End production, a melodrama called Contraband at the Princes Theatre. For his role he was heavily made up as an accomplice of the main villain and was delighted to receive his first good notice from James Agate: "I admire Mr Knight's courage in affecting so much crepe hair, but unless I am mistaken he has the makings of an actor."
Esmond and Frances (or 'Fran' as she was widely known) became secretly engaged and in the autumn of 1928 they again appeared on stage together at the Gate Theatre Studio in London. The play was called Fashion, and when the production transferred to the Kingsway Theatre, Esmond stayed on at the Gate to appear in another play, To What Red Hell by Percy Robinson. The leading role was played by Frederick Peiseley whose highly vigorous performance was complemented by Esmond's calmness, a contrast that did not go unnoticed by James Agate: "But the performance which moved me most was that of Mr Knight who never batted an eyelid during the evening."
Esmond in The Return of the Puritan at the Golders Green Hippodrome, one of half a dozen stage parts he played in1929.
Unfortunately, halfway through the run Esmond developed mumps and even more unfortunately passed it on to numerous theatrical colleagues and family members, including his parents, before being confined to bed at home in Putney. It was now December and the illness created something of a dilemma for Esmond as he had made wedding plans for early in the New Year. The banns had been published but he had yet to tell his parents. So it was on Christmas Eve 1928 that he marched somewhat unceremoniously into their bedroom, where they too were confined with swollen faces, and announced his intentions out of the blue!
At 9am on Saturday 19th January 1929, Esmond Pennington Knight (age 22) married Frances Clotilde Sabben Clare (age 24) at St. Martins-in-the-Field. Witnesses to the ceremony were Esmond's father and Frances' father, James Clare. That evening it was a case of "the show must go on" - Fran on stage at the Gate Theatre and Esmond at the Children's Theatre in Covent Garden where he was playing in a series of adaptations of fairy stories and folk songs, including Managee and the Robbers and Today and Tomorrow. Until then, when he wasn't away on tour, Esmond had still been living at his parents' house in Putney, but the newly weds now moved into a flat at No. 11 Clarges Street, off Piccadilly, once the home of Lady Emma Hamilton and which, by Edmond's own admittance "… was far too expensive."
Having been reunited on stage in Fashion for a while at the Kingsway, the couple were soon out of work again and so they moved to more modest accommodation in Manchester Street. Esmond was forced to leave Fran for a time while he travelled to Paris to join the cast of a play by Simon Gantillon called Maya at the Studio des Theatres des Champs-Elysees. The play was set in a brothel and had been banned in the UK and America; consequently it was drawing huge audiences in France. Esmond was then invited by Albert de Courville, a successful theatrical producer and occasional director, to stay on in Paris to appear in a play about the Great War called The Man I Killed.
At home in England, Fran had gained a part in a play called Nine Till Six in which she appeared with Jill Esmond who during the run married a promising young actor called Laurence Olivier. When Esmond returned in the summer of 1929 he still found it difficult to find work. Depressed and rather disillusioned with the theatre, he travelled down to Sevenoaks to stay with his Uncle Chas, Captain Charles Knight, a well-known naturalist with whom he shared a passion for birds and wildlife. From there he went on to stay with a friend, Vernon Sewell, a technician in the sound department at Nettlefold film studios in Walton-On-Thames, previously the studios of pioneer film maker Cecil Hepworth and where Esmond would soon be making films himself with Michael Powell. Sewell's hobby was boats and they spent some time together on his cabin cruiser at Bosham in Chichester Harbour. While they were there, they witnessed the Supermarine S6 high-speed seaplane fly over as it won the 1929 Schneider Trophy.
As Michael Stockfield with Joan Barry in
Art and Mrs Bottle, at the Criterion Theatre, 1929.
Back in London, Esmond's first job was to help provide sound effects for a radio version of The Prisoner of Zenda with Denis Freeman, with whom he had worked on Fashion. Then towards the end of the year his luck changed and he found work in two plays - The Return of the Puritan at the Golders Green Hippodrome and Art and Mrs Bottle with Joan Barry at the Criterion. Like many actors, Esmond suffered from nerves before going on stage. But for him there had been an additional hurdle to overcome - a stutter from which he had suffered since childhood. He would read through his lines and anxiously look out for problem words beginning with C, P, T, or D in order to prepare to tackle the problem. He discovered that the stutter completely disappeared when he sang: "I used to make up this crazy meandering tune and learn my lines to it." Ironically, in Art and Mrs Bottle he played the part of a nervous young artist who stuttered. Acting an affliction that he normally worked hard to avoid was very difficult, an experience he later described as "absolute purgatory".
Back with the Old Vic company in 1930 for a West End production of Hamlet featuring John Gielgud in the leading role for the first time.
Towards the end of 1929, the author of Art and Mrs Bottle, Benn Levy, wrote a brand new play, The Devil, and seriously considered Esmond for the leading role. Ultimately, however, Levy chose someone else for the part, Denis Neilson Terry, breaking the news to Esmond in his dressing room with the words: "It's no good, Esmond, you just aren't the right shape!" Nevertheless, other opportunities were coming his way and the 1930s began well for him as far as stage commitments went, and he found himself back where he had started his professional acting career five years earlier, as a member of the Old Vic Company in a Shakespeare play, Hamlet, albeit at the Queen's Theatre rather than the Old Vic itself.
The new decade was also to consolidate the tiny foothold he had managed to achieve in the British cinema which had fared badly in the 1920s, struggling to keep up with mighty competition from Hollywood and the huge technical advances surrounding the arrival of "the talkies".