Sunday, 20 October 2019

My 30 years of running children’s theatre group

My 30 years of running children’s theatre group

MUFFIN HURST loves teaching children and believes learning the basics of performing in front of an audience can stand you in good stead for any career.

She should know, having attended her first class at the Henley Children’s Theatre when she was just three years old and going on to run it for the past 30 years.

She is the third generation of her family to be in charge of the group, which was founded by her grandmother Flavia Pickworth in 1969 and has stayed in the family ever since.

To mark its 50th anniversary, more than 100 of the current children will present two performances of 1942 And All That at the Kenton Theatre next Sunday (June 16) at 1.30pm and 5pm.

The play, which was written by Ms Hurst, is original but inspired by the 1971 Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

It is set in 1942 and tells the story of three children evacuated from London to the Dorset village of Broadchurch.

They are lodged with Latin teacher Miss Evangeline Over and encounter the Home Guard and the mysterious Miss Reed and Miss Weep, who write for the local newspaper — all while the Nazis are threatening to invade.

The show will be knitted together by lots of musical performances from the era.

Ms Hurst, a mother of four children, who lives in Hambleden, said: “I think giving children the opportunity to get up on stage and perform to an audience of 200-plus people is fantastic.

“The children feel nervous before a show and that is how they should feel but then the excitement and adrenaline takes over and you can see them beaming from ear to ear.

“This summer I wanted to do a play and decided that the Second World War would be an interesting topic as it is of interest to all ages and there is some really nice music.

“I started with the theme and began writing a story to incorporate 110 children. They have learnt a lot — we don’t give them a lecture and they pick things up as they are learning the lines.

“The children like to have recognisable characters and I do try to bring elements of pantomime into it. There has to be a goodie and a baddie and that’s what works for me and the large number of children.

“There are also references to Dad’s Army with a colonel, a doctor and Perch, rather than Pike, and it is about how good conquers all.

“Broadchurch is relevant to the final scene but I’m not going to give it away. People will have to come and see the show. Songs will include Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler? [the theme tune of Dad’s Army], and We’ll Meet Again. We wanted to show with the music that it wasn’t all doom and gloom in the war years.”

Muffin’s grandmother was a dancer in London, who set up stage schools to perform in variety.

Her son, the singer and record producer Mike Hurst, moved to Henley in 1967 and she followed him, making her home in Hamilton Avenue.

Two years later, she set up the Henley Children’s Theatre Group, which had started initially in Watlington but moved to Henley due to its popularity.

Her first three pupils were Mr Hurst’s children, Muffin and her brother Tim and sister Alexis, who now runs CatKids, a small, independent singing, dancing and drama group based in Thame.

Ms Hurst’s memory of the lessons includes being taught how to project her voice, which is one of the things she teaches her charges today.

She said: “I loved the thrill of performing and the buzz of being backstage and the camaraderie of a group. Nothing can ever match the smell and the feeling of being on stage when the curtains go up and I encourage all my pupils to enjoy the same experience.”

As Flavia battled illness, she was confined to a wheelchair and was unable to continue dancing, so she enlisted the help of her granddaughter as her assistant.

She passed away in 1981 on the eve of the summer show but it still went ahead thanks to her son who stepped in and was so overwhelmed by the strength of feeling from all involved that he felt compelled to continue.

Mr Hurst, once a member of the Springfields, went on to write and produce the shows despite moving to Devon and for several years he would travel to Henley most weeks.

He then started his own group in Tavistock and in 1989 his daughter took over Henley Children’s Theatre. (Mr Hurst has since returned and now lives in Bix).

Over the years there has been the odd stage error due to things that were beyond their control.

When Henley was without a cinema, the Kenton doubled up as a picture house and five minutes before a performance the electric cinema festoon curtain got stuck, leaving 3ft of stage space.

On another occasion there was a power cut in New Street, which delayed the start of a show by 30 minutes.

Ms Hurst, who has four children, Emerald, 28, Tabitha, 27, Tiggy, 24, and Woody, 11, says the children’s theatre group is a family-friendly environment that both the youngsters and their parents buy into.

She explained: “On a Saturday we do a nice blend of singing, dancing and drama but I refer to the drama element as games. It is much better than calling it a drama exercise. Who doesn’t want to play a game? Even something such as follow the leader is a game. We also do musical statues, which is a game, where we ask the children to make different shapes.

“Children have no problem in learning lines, although the teenagers have to work a bit harder. They are given a script and I will spend the first three or four sessions sitting and reading and giving directions, such as the right voice, and then after a few weeks we get up and add movement. It is a very gradual climb and it is only an hour a week.

“We have the real extroverts as well as the extremely shy and that’s something I love about the group of 100 extraordinary children. It is that mix that makes the end result and over time the shy ones we get standing better, or speaking better.

“I have been doing it for so long that there must be something I am doing right and it never seems like hard work. Every Saturday they come, just for an hour, and they have fun. They are enjoying themselves. There will be no pressure on them and I try to make it as easy as possible.

“I am very lucky that I have some core members, some have started at age four. That’s why I call it a family. I really do love children. I want them to be happy and have a nice time. It doesn’t suit everybody but they come along and they can feel that they are part of a family.”

Like any good mother, she treats all the children equally. Ms Hurst said: “When I’m writing a story I count the number of lines for each child and make sure that they all have a few. Writing your own show means you can also change the script. I had two children who couldn’t do a show because a school trip was cancelled and someone had given up something so I had to write in two extra parts.”

She says that performing isn’t for everyone but the theatre group provides essential life skills.

Ms Hurst explained: “People ask me about my acting and why I have never pursued it as a career. I don’t believe I am a brilliant actress or singer and I’m definitely not a dancer but I am excellent with children and directing is my forte.

“I have had hundreds of children over the years who may not have gone on to do more in the performing arts but they have felt more confident and used the skills in what they do next.

“They can leave knowing how to speak to a room full of people and we have had children go on to do all sorts, such as costume design, writing and stage production.”

There have also been a number of success stories as past programmes reveal the names of people helped by the family, including Brinsley Forde, who appeared in Double Deckers and was a member of reggae band Aswad, Eighties actress Marie Elise Grepne and, more recently, stage star Harry Stott.

Ms Hurst, who also runs a management company to help burgeoning actors, said: “I think it is nice to enter the realms of make-believe and for a child the magic of flying carpets and all that stuff.

“I think the group has lasted 50 years because of the family aspect. I am the third generation. I have been running it now for longer than my grandmother ever did but without her I wouldn’t be doing it. People will still talk about her.

“It is a fun group and I love laughter and I will only ever do humorous shows as it wouldn’t work with a serious play. I think entertainment is about laughing.

“I think she would be happy with the way we have run it and proud.

“We were the first theatre group in Henley. What makes ours special is the family atmosphere and I am grateful to parents for entrusting their children to me. I genuinely love the children. I always tell them that life is like a mirror, you get out what you put in.”

Tickets for 1942 And All That cost £11 and are available from the Kenton box office on (01491) 575698 or

• This year’s children’s theatre pantomime in December will be Puss in Boots.

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