In a rapidly changing world it is gratifying to find areas which have remained constant.
In the ten years since the Jubilee Programme was written the Players have continued the pattern which Gwen and Ken Spinks set after the Second World War, three full-length plays and one Festival play per season. The type of play chosen also adhered to their pattern; a classic, a contemporary play and a light hearted comedy or thriller.
The Players chose Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew for their Jubilee Production in 1973, and a jolly affair it was. Dressed in an assortment of modern clothes, set in modern Italy but with a distinctly Scottish Petruchio and Gremio who have come a-visiting from their primitive mountain eirie. The production set out to please, it was full of visual jokes such as a wedding suit of Petruchio – old trousers and a tee shirt emblazoned with the words “Kiss me Kate”. All of which greatly entertained the Settlement audience, but it failed to reach the heights it should, largely owing to its lack of music. The producer could have introduced with great effect a small brass band thereby giving a lift to the whole production. But we will leave the last word to the critic of the North Herts. Gazette who said, “Distinguished by good sense and good acting the production was eminently fit to celebrate the Group’ s Golden Jubilee”.
In February 1974, keeping to the pattern which the Spinks had established, Michael Everett gave us A Breath of Spring by Peter Coke. And in truth it was, for Valerie Coles, Rita Downing, Ella Edwards and Joyce Elson as Nan, Alice, Bee and Hattie gave delightful comedy performances as four light fingered elderly ladies with a weakness for fur. The play delighted the audience and the production brought nothing but praise from the critics.
Ever since the Letchworth Drama Festival started the Players have entered a one-act play and four times since 1974 they have carried off a cup. In that year Roger Newman Turner came away with the Kaete Behrens Steinfeld cup for his production of When the Bough Breaks by Gwyn Clark, a slightly risqué comedy of the Romans in early Britain,
New directors often introduce exciting innovations and when John Seely presented Robin Maugham’s The Servant he did so in the round. It was the Players’ first experience of this form of theatre and both actors and audience found that the extra dimension this brought to the production was most rewarding. Unfortunately playing in the round creates problems for both the Settlement and the stage staff for the hall has to be out of circulation for a much longer period than is the case with a stage mounted show and for this reason the experiment has not been repeated to date.
In the early years of the Players, George Bernard Shaw was our most performed playwright, nearly always produced by Ken Spinks. Over the last ten years Winnie Stubbs has stepped into his shoes and given us two full length Shaw plays while Ella Edwards produced his one act, Overruled, as a Festival play. Winnie’s production of Pygmalian – the second in the history of the Players – had Roger Newman Turner as a dashing Professor Higgins and her second Shaw, Arms and the Man had John Elson playing the ‘Chocolate’ soldier, Shaw’s anti-hero, while Diana Evans took the part of the ingenuous Raina
In the 1975 Festival the Players, for the first time in many years, walked off with the Plowman Cup for the best entry. The play was Chehov’s The Proposal and the director was Ella Edwards ably supported by her two male leads, John Bruce-Ball and Colin Cushley who both gave wonderful farcical performances.
And So To Bed a comedy with music by J.B. Fagan, and who better to direct it than the Player’s Chairman, Roger Newman Turner with his experience of large scale musicals. Janet Tate acted as his musical director of a lively show of amorous intrigue in ‘Good King Charles’ Golden Days’ as seen by S. Pepys. The part of Pepys was taken by Harold Lyth on loan to the Players from St. Paul’s Amateur Dramatic Society. The production hugely entertained both actors and audiences.
Next came Ella Edwards’ revival of Noel Cowards Hay Fever in what the press described as a performance “not to be sneezed at for they excelled themselves”. There were notable performances from Rita Downing, John Elson, Diana Evans, Douglas Harding and Marie Brooks.
A new season started and Noel Ripley with his passion for imposing on a docile audience what he believes they ought to see directed the first of two Brechtian Epics, Mother Courage and Her Children. Val Coles played the title role of whom I.H M. writing in the Citizen said, “The most taxing and complicated part was that of the arch-survivor herself, Mother Courage…and the role proved to be a triumph for Valerie Coles”. Among other praised performances were those of Frances Gaynor as the dumb mute, Katterin, and Jim Harvey as the renegade chaplin. I.H.M. wrote, “Frances Gaynor made the girl’s dumbness an eloquent protect against warmongers” and “…faith is just as vulnerable, as Jim Harvey’s plush voiced pastor can demonstrate and amazingly gain the audience’s respect”.
Janet Tate directed the music and composed some of it herself. Richard Whitmore, the B.B.C. announcer, kindly agreed to be ‘voice over’ on a tape.
But what of the production? The play was certainly a great achievement for the Players and one they can be proud of. But the production failed in putting over to the audience Brecht’s message. They, as did I.H.M. in the Citizen, saw Mother Courage as the arch survivor and the play as a protest against war.
Brecht saw his heroine as a parasite living on the rotting carcass of war and being slowly destroyed by it. War and those who except war as a way of life are equally rotten in his view no matter how bravely they face its appalling destruction. This did not come over.
From the Thirty Years war to a Victorian thriller. In 1977 Jim Harvey, an indefatigable worker, produced Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton. Frances Gaynor played the young wife driven to the verge of insanity by the antics of her avaricious husband played by Mike Symonds. The play builds its tension by stage effects which Mark Gifford as electrician ably supplied.
And so on to the twentieth century and Douglas Home, that champion of the ‘County set’ and the country house setting. Ella Edwards directed his play Lloyd George Knew My Father, in a sprightly production. The cast included Rita Downing who first acted with the Players in A Breath of Spring and who was subsequently to become secretary of the Players under the chairmanship of Ella Edwards, played Lady Boothroyd. Jim Harvey gave up directing for acting and took the part of her husband, General Sir William Boothroyd, looking resplendent in scarlet.
In the summer of ’77 work started on the second Brechtian epic, The Good Woman of Setzuan. Rehearsals started happily with Jim Harvey playing a number of roles and a new comer, Di Prutton as the ‘Good Woman’ only to end in tragedy. At a rehearsal only ten days before the performance Jim Harvey had a fatal heart attack. He had been under great strain for some time. Quite recently one of his sons had died suddenly and at the same time there was great pressure of work at his day time occupation, plus his devotion to the amateur theatre at night. The loss of so talented an actor and untiring worker as well as a dear and loved friend affected the cast, the group and many members of the Settlement audience who had so often admired his performances in the past.
In the tradition of the theatre the play went on and was admirably acted under the circumstances.
Under the new chairman, Ella Edwards, new producers were introduced. Pat Lovelace took over the production of J.B. Priestley’s Dangerous Corner. The play had been planned with Jim Harvey as the director and Pat volunteered to take the job over at short notice.
An interesting sidelight of the play was that of the seven people in the cast, four were to leave the area and the Players within a year. The three had only been members of the Players for just over a year. This high turnover of personnel in a comparatively small group means that without constant recruitment numbers fall to an impossible level.
The last play in the 1977/78 season was directed by Roger Newman Turner and was the second of his light hearted comedies, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound. Glyn Davies and Douglas Harding, who had been acting with the Players for a couple of years, excelled themselves as the two drama critics to say nothing of Joyce Elson’s ‘char’, Margaret Gibbs’ stylish and stylised performance and John Elson making a spectacular entrance in his marsh waders.
The Real Inspector Hound ranks among the most entertaining of Stoppard’s plays and it was an ideal choice for the Players. It was in 1978, one of the first really contemporary plays which the Players had undertaken. The play packed in the audience for three nights and deservedly so – but more of this later.
Another of the new producers was Sue Lamberton who had first acted with the group in The Shrew. She directed a colourful production, full of promise of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. A new young man, David Simmonds, joined the Players straight from a National Youth Theatre tour and was thrust into the lead. He gave a suave and elegant performance while Frances Gaynor who had so successfully played the part of the daughter of Mother Courage shone in the very different role of Lady Windermere. A feature of the production was the ladies dresses made by Elaine Tickle. Unfortunately Sue Lamberton was to leave Letchworth shortly after this production. Sue was a most promising director with her enthusiasm, directness, objectivity and desire to learn, and her departure left a. gap in the ranks of the up-and-coming directors. Not only did the Players lose a director but also their stage manager, her husband, Hugh Lamberton.
It is surprising how gaps once created get filled. In February 1979 Di Prutton produced her first play for the Players, Murder Mistaken by Janet Green. Anne Brook-Smith took over the job of stage manager.
That Spring the Players chalked up two more achievements. In April they won First Prize in the Letchworth Drama Festival for the second time in recent years. The play was A.P. Herbert’s Two Gentlemen of Soho. Margaret Gibbs gave another highly styled performance ably supported by David Simmonds. This was his last performance for the Players before entering a drama school. This production was also the debut of John Moules to the Players and it gave him an opportunity to display his undoubted talent as a farcical actor. It was also the debut of a new recruit, Elaine Barren.
The second achievement was another production of a Chehov play. In May Ella Edwards, building on the success of her 1975 Festival entry, directed our second full length Chehov; that haunting essay in frustrated love, The Seagull. The play introduced a promising young actress to the society, Elaine Willers, who took the demanding role of Nina. In spite of the loving care and attention Ella gave the production and the high standard of acting of an experienced cast, which included Val Coles, Harold Lyth and Roger Newman Turner and a talented young actor, Tim Watson, destined for drama school, the audience numbers were disappointingly low. Could this have been because of the depressed state of the economy and a play which makes certain demands on the audience? But another factor, the smallness of the Settlement stage and close proximity of the audience may have affected the production.
Perhaps of all Chehov’s plays The Seagull relies on an ephemeral quality. The mists of the lake seem to pervade the minds and feelings of many of the characters. As in his Wood Demon the location dictates the mood of the play. The symbol of the wild seagull living and dying so far from its natural habitat, the sadness of the still, silent lake with its flickering lights and far off voices on the distant shore all help to give this ephemeral quality which the cramped conditions of the Settlement stage just did not allow. Nevertheless, the play should rank as an achievement and be placed on the list of worthwhile productions. Let us hope the Players will continue to perform great plays even if conditions are not perfect and the audiences are not as large as we would like.
There was one period of history whose plays the Players had never tackled. Then in November 1979 Di Prutton directed George Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem, the first restoration comedy in the history of the society. A magnificent backdrop of the town of Lichfield was painted by Bill Gulliver. Di Prutton showed great ingenuity, bringing on her actors from every direction, the back, wings and front of house. Douglas Harding and Roger Stubbs, as the two young blades swaggered through their amorous intrigues with aplomb and the full houses and general acclaim bore out the success of the venture.
This was followed by a play by the currently most popular playwright, Alan Ayckbourn’s Just Between Ourselves. Ayckbourn has a very good ear for dialogue and a wonderful sense of farcical comedy in contemporary situations, but underneath there is an element of bitterness and in Just Between Ourselves this is carried to the point of tragedy. Pat Lovelace’s excellent production brought this out with a vengeance. At the end of the last scene Kit Howard, playing the frustrated wife, sits in the weak autumnal sunshine reduced to a state of imbecility by her insensitive and egotistical husband (played by Roger Prutton) and her rapacious mother-in-law (played by Val Coles) as the lights fade to black. Di Prutton and a new actor, Barry West, made up the cast of five. Among the production’s many memorable features was a real live Fiat car which Stephen Gaynor and the stage crew managed to get on the small Settlement stage.
At the Drama Festival of the Spring of 1980 the Players were placed second. Their entry was The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard and produced for the second time by Roger Newman Turner with a somewhat revised cast. Elaine Barren made her second stage entry and for the second time was in a prize winning team. The production was taken to the Welwyn Festival where it was very well received.
The season ended with A Day After the Fair by Frank Harvey, produced by Winnie Stubbs. Based on a story by Thomas Hardy the play is set in the later part of the nineteenth century and like so many of Hardy’s novels is a romantic tale of love between the classes. John Moules played the self-made brewer and Rita Downing played the daughter of a clergyman, now his refined wife, who despises her husband for his yeoman ancestry. The play gave great opportunities for their acting abilities.
When we speak of farce we instantly think of Faydeau and our own Ben Travers who throughout the twenties and thirties churned out play after play for his team of Robertson Hare, Tom Walls, Ralph Lynn and Mary Brough. In November 1980 Roger Newman Turner directed Ben Traver’s Thark as a tribute to the playwright, then in his ninety fifth year and still writing West End successes. Most of the society were involved in one way or another, but the stars of the production were: (Men) John Moules in the original Tom Walls part of Sir Hector Benbow, Douglas Harding as Ronnie, Roger Prutton as the embarrassed young Lionel Frush. The parts of the two butlers were played by Glyn Davies and Roger Stubbs who gave a ‘Hammer horror’ rendering of the ghoulish Jones. Barry West gave a very nice performance as the prying newspaper man. For the ladies, Diana Evens set the tone of the production with her opening Charleston as Sir Hector’s maid, Miranda Hall, on loan from St. Francis School, played Cherry Buck, the pretty shop assistant, while Rita Downing, Joyce Elson and Margaret Gibbs shone as Lady Benbow, the nouvelle riche Mrs. Frush, and the aristocratic Kitty Stratton. The director gave the production a twenties period charm with original recordings from Jack Hylton and his orchestra, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman and many others. The setting of it quite definitely in the twenties, the introduction of the opening Charleston and the twenties costumes added another dimension over and above the farcical fun.
The February production of 1981 was written by the ex-Guardian journalist, Michael Frayn, of whom Wendy Stevenson, the critic in the “Comet” called, “….the thinking man’s Alan Ayckbourn”. It is an interesting observation for whereas Ayckbourn always deals with the contemporary domestic situation, and so is instantly accepted by all, Frayn deals with individuals in relation to their work, and therefore is more readily accepted by those who are in related occupations. The play was Alphabetical Order and set in the library of a newspaper office, and was produced by Di Prutton. Frances Gaynor played Lucy, the librarian and everyone’s friend, whilst Elaine Willers played her coldly efficient assistant who gradually takes over. The total cast were seven, all experienced actors and they played it to the full. The production was well thought out and good but Alphabetical Order was not received by the audience with the enthusiasm it deserved. The local drama critics were full of praise, but those less familiar with the newspaper scene were more critical of the play.
Before leaving the February production we must mention Stephen Gaynor’s most convincing set of a provincial newspaper office and Winnie Stubbs’s newspaper cuttings. She was able to supply a vast number of new cuttings each night which were used in the final scene.
The Festival play was Noel Coward’s Come Into the Garden Maud directed by Ruth Ferguson. The play just missed coming second in the Festival. It was an excellent production of a difficult play for the group, demanding, as it did, sophisticated playing of characters from both sides of the Atlantic.
The season ended with A Play for Ronnie by Warren Chetham Strode directed by Ella Edwards. Sheila Rhodes was given her first major part with the Players as Angela Thornton, the mouselike heroine who turns out to be a giant killer in the end. Today the play is quite definitely nostalgic; a domestic comedy/thriller written and set in the fifties and most of the Settlement audience were enthusiastic about it. The cast, which included Diana Evans, Douglas Harding, Frances Gaynor, Bob Cross and Nicki Chapman who gave a fleeting but delightfully comic portrayal of an oversized schoolgirl, thoroughly enjoyed themselves in their various roles.
The Settlement Players were in good company with their autumn production. Both the Players and the Royal Shakespeare Company decided to present, William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well and their opening nights were only five days apart. Both directors, Trevor Nunn and Noel Ripley, without any collusion, dressed their productions in late nineteenth century costumes. The Stratford production has been acclaimed by the national press, the Settlement production was more modestly received. The audiences were fascinated and amazed at the fluency of the actors. The cast found it a rewarding experience and there were very good houses on all three nights. One of the press critics was critical, with some justification, of the casting, always a problem with a small group. The cast, from the youngest member, Ashley Garling, as a page and a dashing young drummer boy to Winnie Stubbs as a nursing nun to the ailing king, played splendidly and it would be churlish to single out individuals. A difficult but rewarding play, well done.
From the dense complexity of All’s Well to the banality of the “Ghost Train“
It is difficult to assess Arnold Ridley’s Ghost; Train; the dialogue is laughable, the characters – like those in many thrillers – are stock, cardboard figures. Even the brilliant detective, Teddie Deakin, is borrowed from Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey – the silly ass who turns out to be the clever chap. The plot can only be described as absurd and yet it makes very good theatre even today, (it was written in 1925). Could it be the nostalgia of steam together with the fascination of a past and simpler age when it was the rule rather than the exception that plays had happy endings and baddies got their just deserts? It is difficult to say; however, Winnie Stubbs’ production certainly gave us enjoyable theatre. An excellent cast acted this very dated play with absolute sincerity and whether you thrilled with the tension and suspense or laughed at the banal dialogue, or both, the evening was first class entertainment.
The cast included two new actors, Simon Pearsall as Teddie Deakin and Bill Turner as John Sterling. John Moules, Douglas Harding, Peter Lee and John Cruse took the other men’s parts while Ella Edwards gave up producing for acting in the part of Miss Bourne. All the ladies carried off their parts excellently but special mention should be made of Rita Downing’s hysterical performance as Julie Price and Peter Baverstock’s convincing set. Winnie must be congratulated.
The Festival play for 1982 was John Mortiner’s Lunch Hour directed by Di Prutton with Douglas Harding, Elaine Willers and Joyce Elson as the cast. The play was placed third in the Festival. This was to be Di Prutton’s farewell production before she and her husband left Letchworth for the North. Two Players who will be greatly missed in the years to come.
The May 1982 production was Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall and produced by Ruth Ferguson. Looking back twenty years – the play was written in 1962 -Billy Liar seems to epitomise an era: the time when, “We never had it so good”, of full employment, the Beatles, swinging London, of Alec Issigonis’ Mini Minor and Mary Quant’s mini skirts; when Britain was the most exciting country in the world to be in and the future was golden. Were we, like Billy, living in a fantasy world?
In 1962 the play was seen as another in the series of working-class dramas which started with John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” (1956) in which Jimmy Porter, one of the new literate proletariat, railed against the declining middle-class establishment.
Almost a decade later, Billy, the imaginative boy from a prosaic working-class family, fantasises: Billy the success, Billy the Casanova, the man about town, girls, riches, fame are his in his imagination. But when faced with having to realise his fantasy he retreats to the shelter of his proletarian home.
In the Settlement production Winnie Stubbs, fresh from her triumph as director of “The Ghost Train” gave a wonderful performance as, Granny. Three new coiners to the society, Nigel Richards (Billy), Joanne Fyfe (Barbara) and Laura Smith (Rita) gave excellent performances, while William Heaton gave up stage work for acting and acquitted himself admirably in the part of “Arthur”. The rest of the cast, all experienced members were John Moules, Margaret Gibbs arid Ann Brooke-Smith, who until quite recently had been stage manager for the Players. Ruth’s production was splendid.
Billy Liar ended the 1981/82 season for the Players and sixty years in their history. 1982/83 starts a new decade and the group looks forward to another ten years of theatrical achievement.