Jane Asher's stage debut aged 13 in 1959 for the 1959 Season Frinton Summer Theatre & Peter Hoar presented Housemaster by Ian Hay with Jane Asher as "Button" Faringdon.
Housemaster is a comedy by the English playwright Ian Hay, first produced at the Apollo Theatre, London, on 12 November 1936, running for 662 performances. A film was made of the play in 1938.
The play depicts the conflict between a wise housemaster and a puritanical younger headmaster at an English public school, with the action complicated by the unexpected incursion of two women and two girls who have to be accommodated in the otherwise all-male establishment.
Ian Hay had written several plays that were stage adaptions of novels. Hay published Housemaster as a novel earlier in 1936, before it was brought to the stage. In his early years Hay had been a schoolmaster at Durham School and Fettes College. His biographer Patrick Murray suggests that the former, which had a strong rowing tradition, is the model for Hay's Marbledown School in Housemaster.
Charles Donkin is a long-established housemaster at Marbledown, an English public school. His closest confidant is Frank Hastings, the sceptical and sarcastic maths master. Hastings and the rest of the teaching staff, and their pupils, are discontented at the puritanical innovations imposed by Ovington, the recently appointed headmaster. Donkin, though privately sharing the discontent, strives loyally to keep the peace. Into this all-male establishment comes Barbara Fane, with her three nieces, the daughters of the late Angela Faringdon. Donkin was, it is implied, in love with Angela in his younger days, but she married Aubrey Faringdon, who has brought up his and Angela's three daughters with the aid of their aunt. With the girls now aged 20, 18 and 14, Barbara has decided they need a more stable home than Aubrey can provide, and with his agreement she has come to ask Donkin to fulfil his promise to the dying Angela to look after her daughters if needed. Room is found for them in Donkin's house on the strict understanding that the girls are not to mingle with and distract the 55 boys who board there. This condition is doomed from the outset. The glamorous elder girls cannot help distracting Donkin's older boys and his younger staff; the tomboy Button encourages the younger boys to defy Ovington's petty restrictions.
Rosemary, the eldest daughter, has two of Donkin's junior staff falling for her. She spurns the sporty "Beef" Beamish in favour of the gentle, artistic Philip de Pourville. The younger daughters, Chris and Button, encourage the boys of Donkin's house to defy the headmaster's latest and furiously-resented diktat: heedless of Marbledown's long tradition of rowing, Ovington has cancelled the school's participation in the local regatta, and placed the town and the river out of bounds for the duration of the regatta. The boys of Donkin's house openly defy Ovington and go into town en masse. Faced with this comprehensive defiance of the headmaster, Donkin feels obliged to offer his resignation, which Ovington instantly accepts.
Sir Berkeley Nightingale, uncle of one of Donkin's senior boys, uses his influence to have Ovington offered a suffragan bishopric. Ovington accepts, and Donkin is appointed headmaster in his place. News comes that Aubrey Faringdon is about to remarry; his fiancée is a sensible widow, whom Barbara considers a suitable stepmother for the girls. Rosemary will stay in England, and Chris and Button will live in Paris with their father and stepmother. Barbara is now free of her responsibilities; the younger girls convince Donkin that she will need looking after, and that it is his duty to marry her. Donkin, with many misgivings, steels himself to propose, but his colleague Frank Hastings anticipates him: Barbara and Hastings have had a private understanding for many years, and now that she is a free agent they are to be married. Rosemary and de Pourville also become engaged; Chris and Nightingale's 18-year-old nephew seem headed in the same direction. Donkin is happier than he has ever been – about to take over as headmaster of the school he loves, and left in peace as a contented old bachelor.