WOMBWELL THESPIANS – THE EARLY YEARS
Although the “Thesps” were formed in 1926 (we are not sure which month), the society’s first performances were not given until 1927. These were a series of One-Act plays performed in the Parish Hall entitled, “Dear Departed”, “A Little Foul Play” and “Between the Soup and the Savoury”. Their first full length play was not presented, however, until the 15th & 16th of February 1928. It was announced as follows:
Mexborough and Swinton Times February 10, 1928
Another new society is the Wombwell Thespians, who are to make their debut next Wednesday and Thursday with J. K. Jerome’s four-act farce, “Robina in Search of a Husband.”
Miss Pattie Washington is the producer, and as she has been a “leader” in local musical and dramatic circles for many years. The Thespians first production is eagerly anticipated in that district, especially as she has gathered round her many talented friends. The production will be made in the Parish Hall, Wombwell, although rather small, is otherwise well adapted for performances of this kind. The performance is something in the nature of an experiment, for it is a long time since such an organisation was in existence at Wombwell. Miss Washington is also well-known in Mexboro’, for with the old Operatic Society she was the principal soprano in seven of the society’s eight productions.
The next references I can find to the Society are in June and November 1928:
Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Saturday 16 June 1928
The announcement that four amateur dramatic societies—the Swinton Players, Wombwell Thespians, Denaby Church Players, and Thurnscoe Amateur Dramatic Society—have formed themselves into the South Yorkshire Drama Federation is interesting for more than one reason.
These four societies can hardly be said to be representative of the amateur stage in South Yorkshire, though the first-named has no small reputation, and unless some the larger societies, particularly some the societies in the one big city South Yorkshire— Sheffield—join the group, it can hardly be said to have much of claim to the representative title it has chosen. Whether other societies will join remains to be seen.
But the interest of the experiment lies elsewhere. It lies first in the ambition of small amateur dramatic Societies to improve their standard by competition. The Federation proposes to hold an annual local Drama Festival, and the spirit of competition thus invoked is bound to have considerable effect in stimulating the keenness the members of the four societies. More important still the interest of the experiment lies the fact that it is representative of the hard work and enthusiasm of amateur actors all over the country at a time when the English theatre is in a sufficiently feeble condition even in London, and far worse than feeble condition in the great cities of the North, two redeeming features stand out—the Repertory movement and the amateur stage.
The Repertory movement, invaluable as a training ground for actors, hampered In the more important task of producing new and valuable plays by the very fact that it is professional, and so to some extent commercial. We say that pioneer work on the purely literary side is of primary importance, because it is not the standard of acting to-day so much the standard of play-writing, and still more of the appreciation of good plays by the general public that is at fault. It is here that the amateurs come in. They have already done a very great deal of good work. The possibilities that before them are almost unlimited.
Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Thursday 08 November 1928
The recently-formed South Yorkshire Drama Federation, directed by Mr. L. Rowlands, opened its inaugural festival in the Swinton Church Hall last night, when four of the affiliated societies appeared in the local section competition of the National Festival of Community Drama, promoted by the British Drama League.This was the first development of its kind in South Yorkshire outside Sheffield, and the progressive step was recognised by the official attendance of members of the Swinton Urban Council.
The choice of the Wombwell Thespians was Harold Brighouse’s one-act play, “The Price of Coal,” and was popular with an audience of a typically coal-mining district. Produced by Rex Bamford, the play was given a Yorkshire garb, and was cast as follows: Mary Bradshaw, Dorothy Bucke, Jack Tyldesley, Rex Bamford, Ellen Tyldesley, Blanche Guest, Polly Livesey, Mary Thomas.
The other three local groups taking part were the Denaby Church Players who gave the light farce, “A Little Fowl Play, the Birdwell W.E.A. Players with “Black Dogs” and the Swinton Players with a light comedy “Crabbed Youth and Age”. There is no report, however, of how the Thespians were placed in the final judging.
In November 1929 there appeared this short (!) report:
Mexborough and Swinton Times November 4th, 1929
Wombwell Thespians produced “Joan Glayde’s honour!’
There is a mis-spelling here as the title is actually “John Glayde’s Honour” a play by Alfred Sutro dating from 1907.
The next reference I can find is:
Mexborough and Swinton Times March 19, 1937Scenes from the production of this play last week by the Wombwell Thespians.
Mexborough and Swinton Times November 4, 1938
Wombwell Thespians’ Amateur Dramatic Society, who gave the first of three performances of Rudolf Besier’s play in the Baths Hall, Wombwell, last night, hit the quite the proper approach and their work ran smoothly from opening to satisfying fulfilment.
In this, their most ambitious project, they have a producer, Mr. Verdi Popple. Of Mexborough,- from whose expert promptings they have greatly benefited.
It was realised at once that Mr. Popple had not allowed himself to be influenced by film factors; nor was there any suggestion of plagiarism. Mr. Herbert Sykes was Edward Moulton-Barrett, not Charles. Laughton; Miss Lily Jackson was the dutiful Elizabeth, not Norma Shearer; Mr. Jack Guest was Robert Browning, not Frederick March.
Imitation would have spoiled the performance completely. Nevertheless, enjoyment of the work was heightened by familiarity gained from the screen version of this fascinating picture of early Victorian home life.
As the “pivot” of the performance Miss Lily Jackson scored a notable triumph. She seldom left the stage, and never ceased to arouse interest, this despite the fact that she hardly ever rose from “the bed like a sofa and no bed” and, as an invalid was given no opportunity of displaying her natural grace of movement. Her diction was finely modulated and the limited actions allotted to her were achieved with the usual distinction.
Mr. Herbert Sykes gave a masterly study of Edward Moulton-Barrett, as we expected he would, but his pharisaical acerbity might have been a little more brittle. His “shouting mood” was not the best because he veered too far towards the bully. All the same he gave us a well defined and thoroughly detestable “Barrett”
Mr. Rowland Gill had not a heavy part, but his “Doctor Chambers” was another masterpiece. His bedside manner was perfect and his presence always cheerful and convincing.
A charming study in temperamental contrasts was presented by the Barrett sisters, Miss Bessie Turner (Henrietta) and Miss Hilda Varney (Arabel), the latter making quite a promising debut. High spirited effervescence and submissive respectability were here quite piquantly etched.
Miss Turner, whose natural charm is a great asset, was seen to best advantage in open revolt against paternal tyranny. The gloom of the Barrett home served to accentuate this delightful quality.
As the polite attentive suitor, Mr. Jack Guest revealed his great versatility. His Robert Browning was a restrained performance of rare merit.
It would have been difficult to imagine a more successful interpretation of the faithful retainer than that given by Miss Dorothy Robinson as the maid Wilson. In lightly submerged humour she gave just the correct colour to the part.
Miss Pearl Holling, who is making her first appearance with the Thespians, struck a note of joyous vivacity with her Bella Hedley. Her unsophisticated vamping of the lugubrious papa was one of the best bits of the show.
The Barrett automata were capably represented by Messrs. Arthur Charlesworth, Alfred Barber, George Bassford, Kenneth Thompson and Ernest Hinchcliffe, all newcomers to the stage with the exception of the first mentioned.
High up in the points list were Mr. Edward Robinson as Henry Bevan and Mr. Stanley Parrish as the debonair Captain Surtees Cook. Another recruit, Mr. Fred B. T. ring, managed convincingly the relatively small part of Doctor Ford-Waterlow, though he was inclined to fade out a little at times.
“Judy of Hemingfield” was as lovable a little spaniel as ever was permitted in a ladies’ boudoir. When Elizabeth, running away to get married, remarks “Flush, if you bark now we are lost.” there was no fear of Judy spoiling the performance by a noisy interruption. As a matter of fact she cannot bark. The property of Mr Ernest Lovatt, of Hemingfield she seemed to have been born for this part.
Efficient staging by Mr. J. Schofield contributed in no small degree to the success of the production. Lighting effects by the Wombwell U.D.C., directed by Mr. E. J. Wellens, left nothing to be desired. Some choice period furniture had been supplied by. Mr. J. A. Garbutt, of Wath-on-Dearne. The musical interludes were, by Miss W. Turner and Mrs. F. Barnes.
There are further performances to-night (Friday) and to-morrow night.
Scene from the Wombwell Thespians production of “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.”
Mexborough and Swinton Times March 10, 1939
“Thark” – Wombwell Thespians in Farce – Lively Humour
A scene from Wombwell Thespians’ production of “Thark.”
Comedy is evidently the strong suit of the Wombwell Thespians Amateur Dramatic Society who this week-end are making the most of the diverting inanities of Ben Travers’ farce “Thark”. Last night they played before an enthusiastic and discriminating audience, ii and will give further performances tonight (Friday) and tomorrow night.
The Society is carrying a rapidly increasing membership and have given leading places in “Thark” to several players who previously have had only minor parts.
The humour of “Thark” verges on the impudence to which the “leftist “members of an eye brow lifting Purity League might object and clumsy handling of the various delicate situations might have had banal consequences. Under Mr Arthur Bradley’s skilful direction the insinuations are nicely glossed with historic subtleties. The technical skill of Mr. J. Schofield as stage manager is no small factor in the success of this offering.
William H. Grant makes a welcome return to the amateur stage with a robustly enjoyable presentation of the engaging knavery of sly old Sir Hector Benbow, Bart, M.F.H. He is most successfully teamed with Jack Guest in the role of Ronald Gamble, a role offering the latter full scope for his amazing mobility of mood, gesture and expression. Pearl Hollings is just that ultra-smart “turn-out” which Travers visualised in his Cherry Buck, and her first big part with the Thespians is especially well done.
Winifred Turner’s Kitty Stratton is pleasing work, her speaking being an object lesson.
Jean Johnson gives a well studied Lady Benbow, combined with a first class sense of climax. High marks in this entertainment go to Maurice Beevers who gives an appropriately “wooden’ interpretation of the butler Hook. His facial contortions and conventionally of movement and expression are superbly done.
Alfred Barber as the gloomy Jones succeeds from the very beginning in making the flesh of the audience creep. He has got just the right vein and tempo. The rigidity and frigidity of the “no longer young” is successfully achieved by Annie M. Davies as Mrs.Frush. She is fully equal to one of the most difficult pieces of characterisation in the show. Pleasing works is accomplished by Dorothy Rusling as Warner a pert maid, and Ernest Hinchcliffe and Kenneth Thompson as Lionel Frush and Whittle.
Altogether it is a fine piece of comedy, vigorously and pleasingly served. There are musical interludes by Mrs. Lowcock, Mrs. Beevers, and Mrs. F. Barnes.
The Thesps received excellent reviews (highlighted) in the following piece – unfortunately, the name of the reviewer is not given:
South Yorkshire Times June 2, 1951
When I began my annual review last June of the productions by South Yorkshire amateur dramatic societies for the 1949-50 season. I had this to say about this season; -There are indications that the next term may be bolder than that just closed.” Those hopes, I regret to say, have not been fulfilled.
With the exception of Mexborough Theatre Guild’s “Pygmalion,” High Green Players’ production this week of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Wath Grammar School Dramatic Society’s ”Arms and the Man.” all the other productions have been chosen with an eye strictly on the box-office receipts.
I appreciate that societies must pay their way—-for example a High Green friend tells me that mention of Shakespeare has frightened away some people they had hoped would attend their Festival of Britain production—but it may be some consolation to know that “Pygmalion” drew the largest audiences in the history of the Mexborough Society.
This, then, has been a solid, unspectacular season. Nevertheless, the general standard of production and playing has reached a high standard and the district has not been without its competition successes. For example, Darfield Dramatic Club reached the finals of the Northern Area festival of the British Drama League and Mexborough Theatre Guild won Mexborough Music Festival drama section and obtained the highest praise at Doncaster Drama Festival — although they did not gain the trophy. Below you will find my own personal choices for this season. Some of the societies I visited last season, I was unable to visit this season — societies will choose the same night for their first nights! — and I was particularly disappointed not to see Penistone Players, Tankersley Dramatic Society, and Hoyland Co-op. Players who were mentioned specifically in last season’s review. Consequently I am making no reference here to the best production by a small society.
In the light of my visit, my choice of outstanding productions this season is as follows:
Best Straight Play Production: Mexborough Theatre Guild’s “Pygmalion” (G.B.Capshaw), producer Harry Dobson
Highly Commended Straight Play Productions: Mexborough Green Room Clubs “wishing well” (E. Eynon Evans) produced by Robert Ford; Wombwell Thespians “Without the Prince” (Philip King), produced by Jack Guest; and Thurnscoe Amateur Dramatic Society’s “The Paragon” (Roland and Michael Pertwee), produced by William Hardy and J. H. Simpson.
Honourable mention for straight play productions: Wombwell Thespians “Bonaventure” (Charlotte Hastings), produced by William H. Grant; Darfield Dramatic Society’s “The Gioconda Smile” (Aldous Huxley), produced by Tom Illsley: and Mexborough’s Theatre Guild’s “An Inspector Calls” (J. B. Priestley) produced by Harry Dobson,
Particularly delightful individual performances were given by:
Outstanding: Mona Ward (in Mexborough Green Room Clubs “Present Laughter”). Ethel Hatton (in Mexborough’s Theatre Guild “Pygmalion”) and Joseph H Simpson (in Thurnscoe A.D.S.’s “The Paragon.”)
Best Character Roles: John R. Woods (Mexborough Theatre Guild’s “Pygmalion”). Percy Chipp (in Mexborough Green room clubs “Wishing Well”) and Dorothy Leach (in Mexborough Green Room Clubs “The Man from the Ministry.”)
Highly Commended: John R Woods (Mexborough Theatre Guild’s “An Inspector Calls), George Falkous and J Alfred Hall (in Darfield dramatic club’s “The Gioconda Smile”). Hazel I Smith (in Wombwell Thespians “Bonaventure”), J Simpson “(in Thurnscoe A.D.S.’s “And no birds Sing”). Stanley Parrish (in Wombwell thespians “without the Prince)”, and Stephen Jones in Mexborough Theatre Guild “Pygmalion”).
Best Performance in a Horrific Part: Harvey Middleton in Wath Theatre club’s “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
FROM BLACKOUT TO BRIGHT LIGHTS AND BEYOND:
90 YEARS OF THE WOMBWELL THESPIANS AND AMATEUR DRAMATICS SOCIETY
Article in “Alternative Barnsley”
Words by Sally Lomas – October 18th 2015
Carefully helping me manoeuvre my way through the narrow passage backstage, Alan Parker, one of the Thespian’s handymen casts his eyes over various props, tools, large wooden sheets of painted scenery, and drily observes, “it’s a bit of a pig ‘oyle in here! Another theatre group are using the building for their play and we’re between changing sets but it’ll not be long before we get turned around”.
I’d found myself on a mini tour of the Wombwell Playhouse, situated on Park Street, which has been the permanent home of the Wombwell Thespians Amateur Dramatics Society since 1969 shortly before it was painstakingly converted over several years from a church to a fully-functioning theatre. The Society has a dedicated team of retired gentlemen nicknamed ‘The Monday Club’ who maintain the theatre and build sets for plays. Their assistance is also offered to any external group who hire the premises for their own events.
As the evening’s rehearsal began, Alan took me up one of two winding stone staircases right at the front of the building leading onto the balcony seating area to show me a resplendent view of the whole playhouse. Gesturing towards the curved high ceilings, he mentioned that some work needed doing to treat a couple of cracks and minor damp spots but otherwise this 150 year old careworn building is still going strong….just like the Thespians themselves.
2016 marks the 90th anniversary of the Thespians – quite a remarkable milestone owing to the tenacity, determination and above all: passion of its members past and present. Its story began in 1926, a time when the dawn of cinema had already begun. The popularity of moving image and its accessibility to working class people seemed to threaten or overtake live theatre. Fortunately many people back then, as they do now, hold the opinion that suddenness and excitement of the unexpected within live entertainment/drama still has the power and the edge to engage and move people, that perhaps in some ways cinema and also television, then and today, cannot.
The founding members were a small group of teachers at the Parish Church Sunday school who wanted to reach out into the local community to find those of any age or ability who had an interest in the theatre and wanted to have a go at acting. In an interview with the South Yorkshire Times in 1976, member Ted Robinson (then aged 70) said that initially they had difficulty coming up with a name for the fledgling society. It was only after a visit to the Yorkshire Penny Bank when it was suggested by the bank manager to call themselves ‘The Thespians’. Never having heard the term before, he’d asked him what it meant. The word ‘Thespian’, which can refer to either an actor or actress, or a tragedy or drama, is derived from the name of a Greek tragedian ‘Thespis’. At the next meeting Ted put the name forward and everyone agreed that ‘The Wombwell Thespians Amateur Dramatics Society’ was a cracking name. I can imagine that some of those members found their new name to be quite posh sounding and rather grand for a bunch of Wombwellers.
The society’s first performances took place in the Parish Hall with their first appearance being a series of one act plays such as ‘Dear Departed’, ‘A Little Foul Play’ and ‘Between the Soup and the Savoury’. All were well received by the public, leading to a format change in 1930 of three full length plays per year (which has now changed to two). Membership steadily grew with more aspiring actors keen to ‘have a go’ after feeling inspired by their friends and other members of their community.
Throughout their 90 year history, the Thespians have moved around from base to base, both as a consequence of the town’s rapidly altering landscape and the changing needs and requirements of the growing Society itself. From their inception at the Parish Hall, they moved into the town’s ‘Hippodrome’ cinema for a number of years, even though cinemas didn’t generally have proper changing facilities and adequate storage space for scenery and props near the stage area. After that, a series of plays took place at Wombwell Baths (on thick wooden flooring covering the pool) before securing a long-term part-time tenancy at the now demolished ‘Empire Theatre’.
The outbreak of WW2 was not surprisingly, a testing time for the Society. Meetings and rehearsals were often hampered and sometimes postponed due to blackouts. Members from outside the Wombwell area, who were forced to return home, often chose to walk a fair way in the dark and through deep snow in winter. A rigorous approach to security and safety was paramount. Windows and doors had to be taped over before darkness fell to minimise the amount of light being emitted from the building whilst they practised by soft candlelight. As the late, great front man Freddie Mercury once sang ‘the show must go on’, not only did the Society endeavour to do just that, they carried out a fantastic job for the war effort by raising money for charity. In 1943 they raised £16 and sent three parcels of music, plays and other items to a hospital in the Mediterrean zone to raise the spirits of patients recovering there.
After Victory, a society reunion was held at ‘The Three Cranes’ in Barnsley town centre. The then chairman paid tribute to the ex-service men and women but reserved a special announcement at the end of his speech for all members and expressed his gratitude to those who had kept the society going during those lean and challenging years. The entertainment starved townsfolk once again streamed through the doors and equally eager to entertain, the Thespians once again were there to deliver the goods.
Any minor setbacks or problems they experienced seemed to pale in comparison after the burden of war. A newspaper clipping from 1952 reports that due to a power cut, the final dress rehearsals had to be postponed until 11pm after the Sunday evening picture shows had finished. So, undeterred for two and a half hours, the Thespians rehearsed into the dead of night until they honed their performance of ‘Queen Elizabeth Slept Here’ (the cast nearly did but not her majesty) down to perfection. At 1.30am, officials were confronted with the task of getting fifty people home, many having to travel a long distance. Members with cars volunteered for a ‘get-you-home’ service and taxis were ordered. At the premiere once again the play was in receipt of critical acclaim from their appreciative and loyal audience and the local press alike.
It wasn’t until 1969, when the Thespians had the opportunity to purchase the Old Park Street Chapel, that Mr Patrick Burke, a local successful businessman and a supporter of the Thespians, donated the money needed. The Society as last was able to move into a building they could call their own – The Playhouse. Mr. Burke told the South Yorkshire Times shortly afterwards:
“Wombwell has been especially good to me and I was anxious to do something for the town in return. I have been tremendously impressed with the work and the enthusiasm of the Thespians who do a great deal to bring culture and entertainment to the town. It is an extremely worthwhile cause and I am pleased to have the opportunity to help.”
The Society, delighted at their extremely good fortune, embarked on a long and slow refurbishment project. One quick-thinking member had heard on the grapevine that the Barnsley Civic theatre had plans to dispose of their seating. A few enquiries were made and the seating was promptly unbolted and transported to its new home in Wombwell.
In the 1980’s the Society was delighted to announce that Mr. Haselden – businessman and father of long-term member, treasurer and business manager, Jen Marshall – arranged and paid for new Gents and Ladies toilets to be built inside the auditorium. Previously, only outside loos had been available. Also, a small kitchen and tea bar area was created. These new additions added considerably to the comfort of their patrons. I’m sure Jen knows the Thespians owe a great debt of gratitude to her Dad.
After 44 years, I mused aloud to Alan that the Society must have built up an extraordinary and impressive array of props, costumes and scenery. Leading me to the strip-lighted, high-mirrored dressing room, Alan admitted to a build-up of unmanageable clutter that prompted a recent clear out. Bin bags of clothes had been recycled. Peeking inside the post-war style wardrobes, they were packed full of suits, shirts, dresses and smart coats. Tempting as it was to nosy and get completely lost into boxes of hand bags, ties, ornaments and other miscellaneous shelved items, my enjoyable rummage was over. It was time to head back to the rehearsal which was now drawing to its close.
After my visit I felt compelled to find out a little more about the individual Thespians themselves: What is the key to their longevity? What makes them tick? Why do they keep driving forward year after year? I’d arranged to have a chat with Alan’s wife Christine who is the secretary of the Society and currently producing and directing the farce ‘Don’t Get Your Vicar’s in a Twist’ by Lesley Bown and Ann Gawthorpe. Sitting in her kitchen, in a leafy suburbian part of central Barnsley over a glass of bucks fizz, she told me she was interested in theatre, ballet and musicals from a young age. She had originally joined the Wombwell Operatic Society (established in 1935) aged 15 in 1962. Relishing the camaraderie of like-minded people she found the atmosphere of music, singing, acting and dancing truly electrifying and quickly immersed herself in acting roles and generally helping out for several years. After marrying Alan in 1967 and the birth of her eldest son in 1970, the intense five days a week for four weeks rehearsals plus travel constraints amid Alan’s shift patterns at Houghton Main Colliery, made it extremely difficult for her to commit so she reluctantly left not long after. Still, she helped out whenever she could behind the scenes and to this day still retains a link to the Operatics as some of her friends are members of both societies.
The Wombwell Thespians seemed a viable alternative to the Operatics. Their now standard two plays per year with a longer gap of time between them proved to be a more manageable option for a now mother of three boys and she joined the Society in 1980. Over the years she’s taken on parts in plays belonging in three different genres; drama, thriller and comedy. Her passion hasn’t diminished despite having to retire from the stage more recently after experiencing difficulties in learning lines. These days she takes turns along with other members to produce and direct as well as being Secretary of the Society, plus coming up with and trying out new ideas as and when they arise.
Membership has fluctuated over the years, she says. Currently they have between 20 to 30 playing members plus many supporters and well wishers. I asked Christine what she thought was the contributing factor to the longevity of the thespians. Smiling, she explained it was due to the collective commitment of members and a consistent strong desire to put on a good, solid performance for the public as it always had right from the beginning. She’s sure that the key to its success was that combined with carefully chosen plays that they know their audience will enjoy with the occasional something different thrown into the mix. Enquiring if the Society has specific plans to celebrate their 90th birthday, Christine said that discussions have not yet taken place but I’m guessing some sort of special play and maybe an after party will take place.
10 years shy of their centenary, what does the future hold for the Society? Back in the 1976 fifty year anniversary article for the South Yorkshire times, a pessimistic Walter Young had said “I don’t think we shall survive another fifty years. Money is a problem and people don’t sell enough tickets. So far, he has been proved wrong as the candle of the independent spirit of the Wombwell Thespians still burns nearly forty years later, something that Christine says she’s very proud of. The Playhouse Theatre is their own and is owned outright but they still need to raise money to keep it maintained and to pay the bills and other costs. Despite their ongoing expenses, I feel that a great deal more could be done to secure their future – specifically to boost their local presence via social media in order to reach out to a new generation of local theatre enthusiasts who otherwise might not have heard of them. Although as of writing, one of their younger members is currently updating their website and has already created a facebook page ‘Wombwell Thespians‘ and Twitter account @WombwellThesps.
The society is constantly on the lookout for new members aged 18 + to fill their ranks. If acting a part on stage (note: auditions AREN’T necessary) in front of an audience fills you with fear, there are numerous but equally important roles available such as helping to design and build sets, stage management, lighting and sound, wardrobe and makeup etc.
The rich, cultural heritage of ninety years for a small group of local people whose society is based on the Arts is such a remarkable and marvellous achievement and I hope that the final curtain won’t descend on the Wombwell Thespians Amateur Dramatics Society for many, many years.