The Text reproduced below is a summary of The Players’ first 50 years, prepared as part of their Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1973.
When the Settlement Players first met, in 1923, Letchworth was a small oasis of dramatic activity in a part of the county which rarely heard “the creak of the boards” or caught the aroma of grease paint. In the Garden City, however, frequent visits by touring companies only seemed to whet the appetites of residents, who were slow neither to join nor to watch the performances of various amateur play groups. So when Mr. James Dudley, first Warden of the recently opened Adult Education Centre – the Settlement – decided that the time had come to establish a drama course there, the idea fell upon fertile ground.
The Players’ first producer was Mr. Evan John Simpson, also a practising poet. Their first production was The Little Plays of St. Francis, three one act plays by Laurence Houseman. Their first night fell on Wednesday 19 December 1923 in the Village Hall, Ashwell. Three performances were given, on the Friday of that week in the Cooperative Hall, Letchworth and on the Saturday at the Three Counties Mental Hospital (now Fairfield), Arlesey. In his notebook, Mr. Simpson records that the plays “were very well received, perhaps best of all at Ashwell,” though “A very dirty evening produced a Letchworth audience undoubtedly smaller .than would have come in better weather. In fact some 200 people attended that performance, which was prefaced by a talk given by the author, and Mr. Simpson adds triumphantly that a rival production of Much Ado About Nothing succeeded only in keeping its own cast away.
The cast was a relatively large one and numbered C.S. Rowden, Geoffrey Pitter, Arthur Crankshaw, Alan Dudley, Edmund Hunter, Ruth Taylor, Miss Bowes and Mr. Kent among its members. Two new players, Mrs. Jenny Unwin and Jack Waldock, were recruited for Mr. Simpson’s second, and last, production. He chose for this The Sentimentalists, his own translation of Edmond Rostand’s Les Romanesques, and staged it in April 1924,
Mr. Simpson’s notebook is full of candid little comments about his cast: “The mainstay of the whole production was Mr. Rowden – Mr. Hunter is no actor, but made up for it by real saintliness, a sense of humour and tremendous sincerity – Mr. Kent was a bit of a stick,” for instance. He also lists the group’s assets at the end of their first six or so months, including a sedan chair, seven tea chests, two orange boxes, battens and canvas, a cube sugar box and various other oddments. When on stage these, it seems, could be transformed to look remarkably like part of a wall with ornamental gate, newell post and iron railings attached. Mr. Simpson also left for his successor the names of people who might be able to help with props; Rev. Olivier, (-Laurence’s Father), for example, Rector of St. Michaels, could be applied to if a cassock was required.
One of Mr. Simpson’s final recommendations is that an advertising manager should be appointed. But in spite of his rather disillusioned advice to this future functionary “let him remember that there is a man who pushes a sandwich-barrow round the town (Richard Good of 108 Common View)…something original is necessary to wake Letchworth up”, the town’s reaction to their new drama group was favourable, even enthusiastic in some quarters.
However, it was not quite all plain-sailing for the Settlement Player pioneers. In a letter to a fellow producer, Mr. Simpson told him that some groups had attempted to sabotage their work. An anonymous letter sent to the police suggested that the Cooperative Hall was not properly licensed for theatrical performances, and similar machinations seem to have enmeshed Mr. Simpson in a lengthy correspondence on the subject of the translation rights and copy rights of foreign plays. Accusations of irreligiousness occurred periodically, while an early production, Arms and the Man, gained notoriety (and full-houses) because the first act was known to feature a night-gowned young person in her bedroom.
Happily, though, the disapproval of a minority of citizens had little real effect on the play-going activities of the majority. Repertory companies, among them the once famous “Ben Greet Players,” made Letchworth a frequent port of call. When Macbeth was presented by them at the St. Christopher Theatre in 1925, the programme contained two interesting pieces of information; that “the word ‘Glamis’ will be pronounced as a disyllabic when the metre makes it necessary,” and that the part of Lennox and the duties of assistant stage manager would both be undertaken by a young actor named Laurence Olivier.
Chamber concerts and folk dancing proliferated in Letchworth during the ’20’s, and the town’s Operatic Society flourished in the favourable climate. Meanwhile, perhaps influenced by the fact that his wife, Daisy Race, was an actress, Mr. Claud W. Sykes was attempting a theatrical experiment of his own; the staging of plays with casts drawn partly from local amateurs and partly from professional actors. Unfortunately, financial pressures eventually crushed “The Letchworth Citizen’s Company.” The Garden City could also already boast an all-amateur play group, the Letchworth Dramatic Society, which notched more than 100 performances, among them one of the first productions of George Bernard Shaw’s The Shewing-Up Of Blanco Posnet.
The first Garden City was comparatively well supplied with theatres as well. In addition to the Cooperative Hall, plays could be performed at the Pixmore Institute (now Hillshott School) and at the United Services Theatre. A temporary structure standing in Norton Way South, near the site of the present Howard Garden Over Sixties Centre, the United Services Theatre seated from 300 – 400 people and was blessed with a stage efficiently designed by Barry Parker. Letchworth’s chief theatre, however, belonged to the St. Christopher School (now to St. Francis College). The work of Gordon Craig, it had been opened by the actress Ellen Terry.
In addition to these, 1925 contributed another potential playhouse to the town’s stock – the Skittles Inn in Nevells Road which was bought by the Settlement. Surveying their new domain, the Settlement Players seized upon the former bowling alley as the best situation for a stage and made arrangements for the erection of a temporary platform over it in the event of a production. Audiences were squeezed into the adjoining Green Room, which could be made to seat as many as 100 spectators. An early “Citizen” reviewer was pleasantly surprised by the result achieved, noting that though the Little Theatre consisted of “Two rooms which were evidently designed with the express intention of not being a theatre” none the less the effect was “as comfortable an auditorium and stage as could be expected.”
THEATRE IN AN INN
Over the months which followed Evan Simpson’s departure, the Players consolidated rather than extended their position. They staged short plays for the Settlement Summer Festivals, choosing scenes from Pride and Prejudice in 1924 and a one-act play, The Marriage will not take place, in 1925. In the same year the entire Adult Education Centre turned out to present Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the St. Christopher Theatre. Mr. H. Jack Dent produced, Mr. F.J.M. Dent stage managed and the conductor was Miss Mary Ibberson.
Meanwhile the warden, James Dudley, initiated a course of drama reading classes which covered such plays as The School for Scandal, St. Joan, Arms and the Man and The Knight of the Burning Pestle, all future Players productions. Members of the Players themselves took up the educational aims of the Settlement by travelling to the surrounding villages to coach local enthusiasts in dramatic techniques. It was while they were both in charge of such a class, in Radwell, that two men who were to play a decisive part in the Players’ development first worked together; Kevin Doherty and Ken Spinks.
It was under Mr. Doherty that the group presented their next full-length production in February 1926. A. A. Milne’s Mr. Pim Passes By scored a hit with the Citizen reviewer, who praised the cast for their “smoothness and absence of gaucherie,” Works Manager at Shelvoke and Drewry Ltd., Mr. Doherty had gained considerable theatrical experience by working with Claud Sykes’ Citizens’ Company as stage manager and the four years during which he produced for the Settlement proved to be adventurous and rewarding ones.
1927 saw the Players present Shaw’s Man of Destiny and make their first attempt at Shakespeare with the workman’s rehearsal scenes and performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “The speaking for the most part was clearly heard,” commented the “Citizen”, but its praise for the group’s next full-length production, in 1928, was much warmer. “On a small stage, without scenery, they produced a spectacle which must be acclaimed as excellent in design, beautiful in costume, and notable for some very fine acting,” wrote the reviewer assigned to Twelfth Night.
The fine acting was supplied by a cast which included names destined to grow familiar through long association with the Players. Among them, in the part of Malvolio, was Mr, W.C. Bygrave, who was at the start of 40 years work on-stage, back-stage and in an administrative capacity with the group. Manager of the book-binding department at J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd., Mr, Bygrave later won the nickname “Pick” for his portrayal of Colonel Pickering in Pygmalion.
Also making her Settlement debut in Twelfth Night was the young actress who played Sebastian. A St. Christopher pupil and later a school mistress, Kathleen Fitzpatrick was for many years to figure as one of the Players’ most talented and reliable leading ladies. Her father, Edmund Fitzpatrick, was in the cast as well, playing Sir Toby Belch. He had already made an impact on the Garden City’s theatrical scene by his work with the St. Christopher Fellowship Play Group, active in the mid 1920’s.
The role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek was given to Kevin Doherty’s brother Harry, and Casty Cockerel played Viola. Previously seen as a member of the ad hoc company which presented The 13th Chair in May 1924 to raise funds for Letchworth Tennis Club’s new hard courts, Henry Wilkins now appeared as Fabian. A Settlement stalwart, he was later to stage manage, produce and act as secretary for the Players. Meanwhile the part of Feste had gone to Norman Gullick who was later to join the professional theatre.
In the autumn of 1928, Kevin Doherty produced three Irish plays, Lady Gregory’s The Workhouse Ward and The Rising of the Moon and J.M. Synge’s The Shadow of the Glen. The following April brought his production of two short plays, Geoffrey Whitworth’s Father Noah and John Drinkwater’s Mary Stuart, while the Players’ November presentation, Arms and the Man won for him the praise of the Garden City Advertiser. “Under his direction the Settlement Players have aimed high and achieved results notable for care in preparation and originality in interpretation,” it remarked.
1929 also saw Mr. Doherty supervise the remaking of the Little Theatre stage and improvements to the seating arrangements there, and take steps to broaden the Players’ acquaintance with modern plays. At fortnightly play readings, works such as Barry’s Dear Brutus, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (Shaw) and the Insect Play (the brothers Kapek) were studied. However, the end of the year also brought Mr. Doherty’s decision to withdraw somewhat from the group’s activities, although he continued to act with them, and in 1931 produced The Rivals. Among the advances made by the Players during his years as producer, perhaps the most important was their formation into a group attached to the Settlement, though with a separate committee dedicated to “release and use common gifts of the members in acting, costume making, property making, scene painting, and to further dramatic art in Letchworth.”
At first sight, the departure of Kevin Doherty might seem to have left a vacuum at the centre of the group, especially since two members of his back-stage scene, mistress of the robes Catherine Cockerell and electrician Harold Furmston, resigned from their posts at about the same time. However, the Players proved their vitality by presenting a varied series of plays under a number of different directors. In 1930, performances were given of The Wish by Una Strugnell, The Maker of Dreams by Oliphant Down and Thread o’ Scarlet by J. J. Bell, while Henry Wilkins tried his hand at producing with Shaw’s Fanny’s First Play.
1931 featured The Criminal, Legend and Quits as well as Kevin Doherty’s The Rivals, and in 1932 Frederick Beckett was invited to produce As You Like It. This became something of a milestone in the Players’ history, since it was the largest and most expensive production to date and the first to be staged in the former St. Christopher, now the Repertory Theatre. The Citizen reviewer liked what he saw, and told readers; “Great credit was due to the producer…this credit also be shared by the stage manager Mr. Kenneth Spinks, and his assistant Mr, Denis Curtis.” The cast included Rudolph Malthouse (another Settlement Player who was to graduate to the professional stage), Diana Robinson, Oswald Hefferon, Leslie and Nora Spinks, Frederick Dainton, William Baxter, and, making his debut in the part of the second page, Donald Griggs.
April 1933, with its presentation of John Drinkwater’s Bird in Hand produced by Hector MacGregor, can be seen as the end of this transitional period. By now certain talents which had been developing under the surface of the group had grown to maturity and were ready to give the Settlement Players a firm sense of direction as they entered their second decade.
1929 had also witnessed the first meeting of the Mimes Group, which attracted a number of enthusiastic young members and trained them in a style of acting which laid stress on gesture and movement, an asset to anyone appearing on a large stage. After four years, the group felt ready to launch their first full-length production and in February 1933 they presented The Devil’s Disciple under a new producer, Ken Spinks, The Citizen was warm in its praise, writing; “It seems a long way from mimes to Shaw, but these players … are showing the play going public what can be done with determination and courage.”
In the autumn of the same year, and despite competition from Lord Lytton’s lecture and the Pioneer’s Reunion, Mr. Spinks established himself firmly as a Settlement producer with Pygmalion. This proved to be a tour de force which led the Citizen to exclaim “Once more the Settlement Players have taken to the stage and excelled.”
The following February saw the Mimes Group under Ken Spinks present another Shavian drama, You Never Can Tell. This played to appreciative audiences, whose enjoyment was apparently enhanced by an improvement to the Repertory Theatre. The Hertfordshire Express reviewer wrote; “The first thing to strike a spectator on taking a seat would have been the change in the orchestra ‘pit’ which brings the musicians more into view than formerly, improving their status as participants in the entertainment.”
The production was also memorable for a distinguished portrayal of Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon by Miss Florence Thompson. Also a member of the Operatic Society, and later of SPADS, Miss Thompson attracted the favourable attention of the press who noted that she gave “A performance that was sympathetic and dignified, and, when necessary, suitably dramatic.”
Within a few months Mr. Spinks had prepared another production, a comedy by Eden Phillpotts called The Farmer’s Wife. The Pictorial thought this “splendid entertainment”, praised David Thomas for his power of “sustaining” humour, and observed of the cast as a whole; “They are in plays so often that I suppose it comes almost as a profession to them.”
Noel Coward’s The Young Idea followed in the autumn, and in 1935 Ken Spinks produced his first Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night. Given four performances, it played to full-houses which included some 400 Letchworth school children, and Duncan Gray commented; “My impression was that the Players had imparted a light and delightful touch and brought the comedy out to the full. There was nothing heavy about it, and they made Shakespeare much more delightful than many amateurs have done.”
Charles Bygrave made a popular Malvolio again, while Kevin Doherty played the part of Orsino and Diana Robinson that of Viola. Mrs, Gwen Spinks (as Miss Gwen Miller she had previously been a member of the Operatic Society) appeared as Olivia and Kathleen Fitzpatrick as Paria, while two Mime Group members, Molly and Derek Booth, were tucked away as a Page and the Sea Captain, Mr. and Mrs. Booth, who now live in Steeple Morden, were both at the start of a long and active association with the Settlement Players. A loyal back-stage crew included Miss S.E. Dewe as “Mistress of the Robes”, Norman Brookes as Stage Manager and Robert Footman as Electrician,
1935 closed with another Shaw play, this time Major Barbara with Helen Brownscombe in the title role and Jack Lovington as Adolphus Cusins, and in 1936 a new producer made her debut with the Settlement Players. The year had begun with a high spot in Gwen Spinks’ acting career when she was commended for her portrayal of Gwenny, the Welsh maid, in Emlyn Williams’ play The Late Christopher Bean. She followed this by switching to production and preparing Barnet’s Folly, a West Country comedy by Jan Stewer, for presentation in May. Press reviews awarded chief acting “honours” to Christobel Thompson, Marjorie Pye, Bernard Youngman and Mary Ponder, and went on to applaud Mrs, Spinks for her “thoroughness.”
In November of the same year, Ken Spinks’ career also reached a high spot – his production of The Insect Play by the brothers Capek. House records at the St, Francis Theatre (newly rechristened) were all broken when over 1, 300 people, including visitors from London and other parts of Hertfordshire, flocked to see it.
Conceived on a large scale, the production used a cast of some 33 actors and a nine piece orchestra under Edwin Swannell. Tom Harding joined forces with Norman Brooks as stage manager, Miss Dewe enlisted the aid of Mr. Field of Station Road, the Church Lads Brigade and assorted Letchworth citizens in preparing costumes. Diana Robinson arranged the dances and Gwen Spinks assisted her husband as producer.
The results led to the Welwyn Folk Players inviting the Settlement group to Welwyn Garden City for a week and to the Letchworth Advertiser’s comment: “Visitors came from all parts of the home counties -and Letchworth can feel proud that these visitors (many of them well known in the dramatic world) expressed their amazement at the high standard attained – Letchworth is once more on the dramatic map.” Another reviewer felt that the Players gave a “better interpretation” of the piece than a current London production (at the Little Theatre) and that “their acting does not lie far behind the professionals.”
In March 1937 Gwen Spinks varied the pace with a production of J.B. Priestley’s Laburnum Grove prior to another Ken Spinks experiment, a Chinese play called Lady Precious Stream by S.I. Hsiung, which he staged in May. London audiences had greatly enjoyed this work, promoting it from the Peoples Theatre on the embankment to the Savoy during the course of its two and a half years run, but Letchworth play-goers were divided in their response. Local newspapers noted this wariness, but were themselves united in approval. “All those who took part acquitted themselves most admirably” wrote one, while another welcomed the avoidance of stage “realism” and added “The reception of the play will be a test of whether local audiences appreciate something good,” The cast included Hugh Bidwell, Winnie Stubbs and future stage manager and wardrobe mistress Selwyn and Grace Coles.
November 1937 saw the Players try their hand at farce with It Pays to Advertise by Walter Hackett and Boy Cooper Megrue. Reviewers noted that the leading actor/producer Ken Spinks, had deputised for another player at only four days notice and THY adds “Apart from everything else, It Pays to Advertise was a personal triumph for Leonard Lewis. He was on stage practically the whole of the time and made a great impression on the audience.”
John Day, Barbara Dawson, Evan Fletcher and Winifred Fooks were also in the cast and Mr. C.F. Plowman appeared as Sir Henry Martin. With his wife, Mr. Plowman was the Players’ secretary for several years and donated the cup presented to winner of the Little Theatre Drama Festival.
Gwen Spinks’ Nine Till Six, a comedy by Aimee and Philip Stuart, followed in the spring of 1938 and in November Mr, Spinks brought; Oliver Goldsmith’s well-loved She Stoops To Conquer to the Letchworth stage. Superlatives abounded in reviews which singled out Oscar Backhouse and Beryl Bayley for special mention. Dennis Broscombe was stage manager and Miss E. Luen musical director.
THE WAR YEARS
The last play at St. Francis Theatre before the outbreak of the Second World War was Gwen Spinks’ production of A.A. Milne’s The Fourth Wall, billed in reviews as “Letchworth Settlement Players’ first attempt at a thriller.” Thereafter the group concentrated on presenting a series of plays at the Settlement with the intention of providing the town with fortnightly theatre evenings. Despite the blackout these attracted full-houses and ranged through an impressive variety of works, including Tobias and the Angel, Death Takes a Holiday, The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet, A Hundred Years Old, The Sword is Double Edged and Call to Kenilworth.
The war years also saw the emergence of a number of new Players. Among them were Alec Barrett, a teacher who made his mark as an actor, stage technician and committee man, his wife Doris, Ella Edwards (secretary at St, Christopher School) and Elaine Tickle, the group’s present secretary.
July 1943 brought the Players triumphantly back to the St. Francis Theatre with a new musical version of John Gay’s The Beggars Opera by Dr. H.F. Redlich, a BBC employee and musical director at the Settlement. The Citizen described this as “a striking event in the artistic side of Letchworth’s life” and praise was meted out to Harold Cook as Lockett, Roger Powell as Macheath, Amy Vose as Polly and Florence Thompson as Lucy. Leonard Burbridge was chorus master and the dances were arranged by Liesl Redlich. The production impressed Mr, Norman MacFadyen so greatly that he sent a letter to the Press remarking, “It is encouraging to see that the dramatic reputation of Letchworth in its early days has not been lost.”
A return to Shavian drama was made in October 1944 when Ken Spinks produced Caesar and Cleopatra with Diana Robinson and Alex Barrett in the title roles and a spectacular set of costumes. Drawn almost entirely from the Players’ own wardrobe, they were judiciously augmented by Egyptian collars which had been painted by a phalanx of Letchworth ladies. Peace was celebrated at Christmas 1945 with a production of Jubilee proportions – 1066 and All That, The papers saw “a great deal of prettiness in it” as well as humour, and considered the play “about the cleverest thing they have ever done in the town.”
POST – WAR
Once the war was over the Players returned to their earlier pattern of presentations with three plays on average a season, one of these of a “lighter” character. Ken Spinks’ production of Sutton Vane’s Outward Bound in May 1946 signalled the return to normal conditions and drew praise for Hugh Bidwell in the part of Mr. Prior while Eric Milton’s portrayal of the Rev. Frank Thompson was classed as “natural and spontaneous acting.” KL added, “Mr. Joseph Flatten touches Scrubby with a feeling of what I can only call genuine poetry.”
A new Gwen Spinks’ production, Barrie’s Dear Brutus, followed, and was entered in the British Drama League Full-Length Play Festival. Among the players was a new member, Noel Ripley, who had previously been active in amateur dramatic circles in Arlesey. In December 1946 Hugh Bidwell directed Ambrose Applejohn’s Adventure by Walter Hackett, and 1947 saw the Settlement Players again enter the British Drama League Festival, with marked success.
The Citizen set aside a good nine inch column on its front page to record the adjudicator’s remarks: “He praised the settings, lighting, make-up and costumes… the atmosphere was maintained…team work was very good.” The play was George Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan produced by Ken Spinks with a backstage crew which included Edward Cobb as stage manager, Clifford Richmond as electrician and Patricia Gowman as the “mistress of the robes.” Local reviewers were equally impressed; KL thought Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Joan “a considerable task, bravely done,” Cecil Plowman’s Inquisitor “faultless”, Patrick Wright’s de Rais “neatly turned”, Charles Bygrave’s Archbishop “stately and considered” and Derek Booth’s Dauphin “fascinating”. He concluded “Justice was done to one of the greatest plays in the language; it was a fitting reward for their extensive preparation”.
The next presentation, Gwen Spinks’ production of The Cradle Song, a comedy by Gregorio and Maria Martinez Sierra, sported a cast list which favoured the ladies, and KL lauded Beatrice Bowney, Ida Price, Ella Edwards and Barbara Bird among them. In May, Alex Barrett took up the responsibilities of production with Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, and Gwen Spinks launched a new season in November with J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls.
Ken Spinks’ next production bridged 1948 and 1949, running from December 29 to New Years Day. Assisted by Noel Ripley and backed by a behind-the-scenes team including Stan Chapman, Derek Spinks, Warwick Taylor, Joan Taylor, Sybil Lumley and Patrick Wright he presented A School for Scandal. Sheila Hector, Patricia Lister, Harold Cook, Patricia Titmuss, Edwin Cobb and Vera Allsopp were among the Players who received the approval of the press. Mr. Spinks capped his Sheridan play with A, A. Milne’s The Dover Road, presented in April.
The St. Francis Theatre stage was tackled by a new producer in November 1949 when Mr. Charles Heriot directed a historical drama entitled The Queen Who Kept Her Head by Winifred Carter. A professional stage and costume designer, Mr. Heriot was also in effect the country’s Censor since he held the post of first reader to the Lord Chamberlain. With a cast which featured Joe Flatten, Ken and Gwen Spinks, Richard Knight, Doris Barrett and Joyce Jones (later Joyce Elson) he turned out a “first-class entertainment.” Not the least of Mr. Heriot’s achievements was the contriving of magnificent Tudor costumes from the only cheap material at hand, old army blankets.
This brought the Players first quarter century to a close and Noel Ripley comments: “The first five or six productions after the war were a great success financially as well as artistically, but from 1948 audiences began to fall and costs of hire of the theatre and costumes etc. to rise.” These developments were soon to force a change in the group’s policies.
The new decade began inauspiciously for the Players with a major upset. Illness, bad attendance at rehearsals and rising costs compelled Ken Spinks to cancel his production of RUR by the brothers Capek. This left the group with six weeks in which to prepare for their March presentation and Gwen Spinks stepped into the breach with Charlotte Hasting’s “recent London success,” Bonaventure. The incident demonstrated that the group’s momentum had temporarily run down. A new and relatively inexperienced committee had been elected and was finding great difficulty in choosing suitable plays for presentation.
1951 brought the Festival of Britain, and all Letchworth’s amateur dramatic societies were invited to join forces in a special production to celebrate. 1066 And All That absorbed the energies of the Settlement Players for most of the year, so that they ended it with only one full-length production and an evening of one-act plays to their name.
However, the committee were still finding it difficult to select a play for the coming season, and so the group decided to inspect the Settlement’s own little Theatre with a view to improving it and using it for less financially demanding productions. Some structural alterations were made, the stage raised, and new lighting bought, and in March 1952 Noel Ripley directed the first full-length play to be staged there for several years. Performed in the authentic melodramatic style, Maria Martin or Murder in the Red Barn was also Mr, Ripley’s first production assignment for the Settlement Players.
The same year also saw a junior group, established by Mr. Monte Middleton, present Five Birds in a Cage by Gertrude Jennings and the formation of a play-reading group under the new Settlement Warden, Mr. Brian Groombridge. Mr. Middleton also wrote a one-act play, The Night Outlives Your Bravery, which was entered in the Letchworth and Welwyn Festivals and brought home a new play prize.
The upward trend was continued by Ken Spinks’ 1952 production of Shaw’s Man and Superman which met with success despite a number of last minute disasters. Brian Groombridge, already the House Manager stood in for Joe Brady, concealing his lines in his hat, Winnie Stubbs deputised for Edith Warnock and hid her text in a handbag, and Margaret Bidwell took over Ann Holt’s part. Hugh Bidwell’s portrayal of Jack Tanner was warmly praised, and newcomers on the programme included Stephen Ward and Percy Simmonds, an ICL employee who was later to figure as an outstandingly conscientious and inventive stage manager.
Christmas 1952 was marked by an “extravaganza” written by Monte Middleton and Hugh Bidwell, The Caliph’s Cure, and the following April saw the Players under Noel Ripley attempt a form of drama unfamiliar to them, Jean Anouilh’s treatment of the Greek tragedy Antigone. The production was greeted with admiration and its leading lady, Juliet Woolf, was judged to have successfully met the challenge presented by the title role: “It would be difficult indeed to praise her performance too highly” wrote DS.
Autumn 1953 brought a children’s pantomime, Beauty and the Beast written by Nicholas Stuart Grey and produced by Gwen Spinks and in April 1954 Mrs. Spinks led the group back to the St. Francis Theatre with a production of R.C. Sheriff’s Home at Seven. Among the cast were Christa Topham, Ella Edwards, Sandy MacCulloch (later to win a place at the Rose Bruford School of Drama) and James Innes, who was to provide the Players with a number of one-act and one full-length play over the coming years. The year also saw Ella Edwards take over the young players and Ken Spinks present two scenes from Part One of Shaw’s Back to Methuselah.
Ken Spinks also opened the new season, with Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton performed at the St. Francis Theatre. A review by BM praised John Glass (a master at Letchworth Grammar School) for his portrayal of Crichton, as well as Clifford Franklin, John Wheeler, Rosemary Read and Jacqueline Smedley. The 1954/55 season saw the Young Players present Arms and The Man and the Mimes Group decide to withdraw from both the play group and the Settlement as well.
Fresh changes lay in store for the Players when a former Spirella director, Mr. Kincaid, made a bequest to the adult education centre. Hugh Bidwell was given the task of designing a multi-purpose hall and stage there, and the succeeding months, dominated by the building of what was to be the Kincaid Hall, were relatively uneventful ones for the play group. Though Gwen Spinks presented The Barretts of Wimpole Street at the St. Francis Theatre, no Christmas or post-Christmas production could be undertaken. However, Settlement actress Kathleen Fitzpatrick scored a notable success at the 1955 Welwyn Festival when she won the medal for best female performer.
The Little Theatre was completed in the Spring of 1956, See programme, here, and the Players set about equipping it with flats, a lighting panel with dimmer and full stage lighting at once. Donations, and there were many, including a curtain with curtain runners. The theatre was “confirmed” by a Noel Ripley production, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist performed from May 30th to June 2nd 1956. Reviewers awarded “Full marks to Noel Ripley for a most intelligent piece of production” and made special mention of Joyce Jones, Horace Mayo, Bill Pearce, John Glass, Charles Heriot and the new Settlement Warden, John Waller, who played Sir Epicure Mammon.
The autumn brought a modern verse play to the Little Theatre, Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not For Burning produced by Gwen Spinks.
1957 opened with The Importance of Being Earnest in which Ken Spinks directed a cast including George Parker, Don Porter, John Waller, John Cruse, Ken Wilson, Peggy Branch, Elaine Tickle, Ellaline Edwards and Jacqueline Smedley and continued with a major Gwen Spinks’ production, Robert’s Wife by St. John Irvine. A newcomer backstage was David Fyfe, who assisted Percy Simmonds as stage manager, and the Press thought well of the play – especially of Pixmore Headmaster Ronald Webb and Westbury Head George Andrews, who took leading roles.
The year had also featured the founding of a drama day school at the Settlement, financed by the players. Actor, producer and adjudicator John Izon agreed to come to the Garden City to take it, and the project was so successful that in the following year an extended drama course was held. A Jim Innes one-act play won the new play prize at the Letchworth Festival, and Noel Ripley produced Noah and The Flood, compiled from a selection of medieval miracle plays, for the Little Theatre internal festival and the festival at Welwyn. 1957 also saw another impressive Shaw production by Ken Spinks, Androcles and the Lion.
1958 saw Noel Ripley present a second melodrama, a musical version of Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street which spiced a drastically cut script with nineteenth century music hall songs. The performances netted £40, which were donated to Settlement funds, and among the cast John Elson excelled as a lovelorn officer singing “Our Hands Have Touched but not Our Hearts.”
Responsibility for the November production was shared by Noel Ripley and Jacqueline Smedley. The result prompted the Citizen to write; “The Settlement Players of Letchworth have long had a reputation for presenting out-of-the-run drama and presenting it with skill and understanding, but never can they have been more successful than they were last week with Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.” Reviewers considered that the entire cast, and it was a large one, had all displayed “acting of a very high calibre,”
For the spring of 1959 Ken Spinks staged a revival of his 1933 production, Shaw’s Devil’s Disciple, adapted to the smaller stage of the Little Theatre.
However, November’s presentation launched the new season with a resounding success. This was Noel Ripley’s production of Dark of the Moon by Howard Richardson and William Berney, which had recently been produced at the Cambridge Theatre in London by Peter Brook. The play, based on the American hill-billy ballad “Barbara Allen”, took Letchworth by storm. One critic called it “One of the most rewarding evenings of amateur theatre I have ever sat through” and the Citizen remarked “The acting rose above average (for the Settlement Players) on only a few occasions, the accents in the main were laughable, much of the make-up was too garish for the Little Theatre, yet Dark of the Moon provided one of the most exciting, impressive and memorable evenings of entertainment seen locally for many a long day.” In the same issue KJ was moved to devote his entire column to the production, and with other reviewers praised Bill Shank’s hauntingly poetic portrayal of the Witch Boy, John.
In contrast, Gwen Spinks presented a popular Agatha Christie play, Towards Zero, but the 1950’s ended on a sour note for the Letchworth amateur theatre in general. Lack of financial support caused the long-running Letchworth Drama Festival to be wound up.
November 1960 brought a production by Noel Ripley and Joyce Jones of She Stoops to Conquer, and in the following March, Gwen Spinks directed The Heiress, an adaptation by “Ruth and Augustus Goetz of Henry James’ novel Washington Square. Ken Spinks and Noel Ripley joined forces for the May presentation, An Italian Straw Hat by Eugene Labiche and Marc-Michel, and a new producer, Charles Taylor, ushered in the 1961/62 season with Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge.
1961 also witnessed the formation of the Settlement Players Theatre Club, which boasted 45 paid-up members by October, and in 1961 Noel Ripley established an actors class. His pupils were given a chance to display the fruit of their labours in December 1961, when they presented Without Rhyme Or Reason, a show-case selection of sketches and plays by Harold Pinter, N.F, Simpson and Lucian,
This turned out to be a greater success financially than either Joan Dixon’s production of The Rape of the Belt in May or Ken Spinks’ November offering She Passed Through Lorraine. However, April 1963 saw the first Little Theatre Drama Festival, held thanks to the joint efforts of both the Settlement Players and SPADS.
In addition to the Festival, the spring of 1963 saw the Players present a full-length play by one of their members as well. Half Dead, written by Jim Innes, was produced by Gwen Spinks and numbered in its cast a relative new comer, Diana Stead, who later became Mrs. Diana Evans. It was followed in May by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town which was acted by a cast including Valerie Coles, Edward Falcon, Albert Claydon, Eric Oldham, Harry Kemp, Eric Warriner, John Cruse and Kenneth Grahame Plinstone, and directed by Barry Whitehead.
September featured Letchworth’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and the Players combined with SPADS to stage “A New Letchworth Revue” suggestively titled 1903 – And So What? The script had been written By Hugh Bidwell and Donald Griggs with additional material supplied by Noel Ripley, and the Little Theatre was packed for the production’s two performances.
The new season at the Settlement opened in November with a Gwen Spinks’ production, J.B. Priestley’s When We Are Married. March 1964 brought the debut of a new Settlement producer, Maurice Coles, who presented The Queen and The Rebels by Ugo Betti and Joan Dixon again figured as a director in May with David Turner’s play Semi-Detached. Among the cast was the Players’ present Chairman, Roger Newman Turner, as well as Muriel Woollons, Fred Morton, Eric Bence, Janet Hudson, Derek Lev and Jacqueline Cresswell.
The main success of the year, however, was Peter Ustinoff’s comedy Romanoff and Juliet, which was staged in a two-storey set ingeniously contrived by Percy Simmonds. This marked Ken Spinks’ last production to date, though he continued to act as the Players’ Chairman for some years.
The following March saw another J.B. Priestley play I Have Been Here Before produced by Maurice Coles. Noel Coward was represented by Present Laughter, prepared by Arthur Claydon for performances in May, and in November Maurice Coles directed a cast including Christopher Stockwell, Elaine Tickle, Winnie Stubbs, Janet Hudson and Lynn Webster in Jitta’a Atonement, a translation by George Bernard Shaw of a play by Siegfried Trebitsch.
Gwen Spinks’ next production came in February 1966, when she presented N.C. Hunter’s comedy Waters of the Moon backed by a team which included Douglas and Janet Tate. In the Citizen, LJK commented, “The vast experience of producer Gwen Spinks undoubtedly played a vital part in the smooth running production” and he went on to praise the performances of Leslie New, Frances Cave, Sally Parker and Graham Pearcey among others.
Janet Tate tried her hand at producing in May 1966 with Ted Willis’ Woman in a Dressing Gown, and at this time Christopher Makepeace took over from David Fyfe as electrician. After the success of his version of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle in the Letchworth and Welwyn Festivals, Noel Ripley teamed up with Janet Tate to prepare the autumn presentation. This was an evening of two short plays, J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea and a nineteenth century melodrama rewritten by Mr. Ripley, Black Ey’d Susan.
Winnie Stubbs figured as a Settlement producer for the first time in February 1967 with The Gioconda Smile by Aldous Huxley, and among her cast were Jim Harvey, Diana Watson, Margaret Alston and James Ellis. Gwen Spinks returned in May with Constance Cox’s Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, a play based on a short story by Oscar Wilde and in the Pictorial Ian Rogerson commented “This was the second time I had seen them (The Players), and again I was impressed by the amazing amount of dramatic talent contained in this most ‘professional’ amateur group.”
In the autumn of 1967 however, the Players tackled a play of a completely different nature with Noel Ripley’s The Sins of the Fathers, an original documentary drama based on the story of the trade unions in the early nineteenth century. A feature of the production was the panel of well-known educationalists, politicians, business men and trade unionists who discussed the issues raised at the end of each performance. C.J. in the Gazette thought it an “important contribution to drama … compelling and interesting theatre,” and DW in the Pictorial agreed: “With this production the Settlement Players have thoroughly reinforced their position as one of the most important amateur groups in North Herts,” he wrote. A 19-strong cast was backed by a back-stage team including David Fyfe as electrician, Marie Whitby as property designer, Elaine Tickle as wardrobe mistress, and Ena Cohen as assistant producer.
Visits by professional companies, including the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Theatre-Go-Round“, the Guild Hall School of Drama and the Barrow Poets, were a feature of the Little Theatre programmes at this time.
The following May brought a new presentation of Gwen Spinks’ earlier success. Charlotte Hasting’s Bonaventure. This had been preceded by The Aspern Papers, adapted from the Henry James story by Michael Redgrave and produced for the Settlement by Osborne Ellis. If this conjured up an Edwardian frame of mind, the autumn presentation transported its audience back some 350 years, for Noel Ripley had decided to produce an original version of The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Beaumont and Fletcher in an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of an Elizabethan Theatre within the limits of the Kincaid Hall.
He succeeded so well that many of the reviewers broke out in sputtered “quotha’s”, and the Post commented “Producer Noel Ripley went to great pains to recreate the robust knock-about fun associated with Elizabethan staging and his cast backed him to the hilt .., my pick was Russell Strong … the ungainly apprentice Ralph. Also outstanding was Winnie Stubbs, as the matronly Citizen’s wife.”
1968 was also a successful Festival year for the Players. Maurice Coles’ production of Shaw’s Great Catherine won the best production award, the best play and the best actress award (Valerie Coles) at the Welwyn Festival, and Roger Newman Turner was runner up for the best actor award.
The following Spring saw Winnie Stubbs produce The Chalk Garden by Enid Bagnold, and in May, Gwen Spinks presented her last production to date A Hundred Years Old by S. and J. Quintero. Later that year Noel Ripley added a sequel to The Sins of the Fathers with another documentary play, A Dream of John Bull. This brought the action up to the eve of the 1970’s with a frenetic final scene which moved the Gazette to comment “A fantastic ending … The lighting changed to psychedelic, the rhythm to a blaring pop instrumental. The young actors began a violent dance … such as has never been seen before in local drama and the audience was left breathless.”
However, the Players maintained their continuity with the past, for Charles Bygrave agreed to come out of retirement to play John Bull.
By 1969 the membership of the Theatre Club had risen to nearly 150, and a favourable financial report allowed the Players to buy new chairs for the Kincaid Hall and Chris Makepeace to make a new dimmer. The 1969/70 season proved to be a strong one, with Winnie Stubbs producing Maurice McLoughlin’s A Letter to the General in January and the Players contributing their first full-length Chekov play, The Cherry Orchard, to the Settlement’s golden jubilee fortnight. Translated and produced by Maurice Coles, it contained impressive performances by Settlement Players, Treasurer John Elson as Fiers and by Valerie Coles as Mme Ranevskaya. Tony Gilby and Jim Harvey also featured, prominently and among the younger Players were Catherine Squirrel, Nora Bain and Anna Futak.
A few clouds had appeared on the horizon however, due to the departure of both Percy Simmonds and Christopher Makepeace from Letchworth. In subsequent productions, Ena Cohen, Ken Spinks, Betty Harvey, Russell Strong, John Elson, Anthony Coles and Noel Ripley have been among the Players who stepped in to help out back-stage.
In 1972 Roger Newman Turner was elected Chairman with Elaine Tickle as secretary, and a largely new committee. New producers have emerged, among them Michael Everitt, Valerie Coles, Jim Harvey, Grace Husson, John Seely and the plays presented have ranged from the experimental (Indians) through the realistic (Summer of the Seventeenth Doll) to period comedy (The Noble Spaniard), .
Hardy perennials like Hobson’s Choice (In which John Elson excelled in the part of William Mossop) have rubbed shoulders with contemporary successes like Black Comedy, and that cinema classic, My Three Angels, while historical drama was represented by The White Falcon.
Throughout the history of the Players it has been the unstinted and dedicated work of a comparatively small number of people which has left its stamp on the Society and contributed so much to the theatrical life of the Garden City.