Saturday, 15 December 2018

Village hall drama’s dead, but I think the corpse is twitching

IT’S twenty to eight, there’s a hum from the other side of the curtains, laughter, a clinking

IT’S twenty to eight, there’s a hum from the other side of the curtains, laughter, a clinking of glasses; on our side there’s forced jollity to hide our tension and a smell of make-up and powder.

Next door to us is the kitchen where bar staff and cooks busy themselves. We’re hiding in the dressing room, out of sight of the audience as is the tradition.

We’re five minutes from the opening of the annual community event which is the Stoke Row Drama Group and we have full houses for all three nights. Villages all over the Henley hinterland are doing this at some time of the year.

Our part of the deal is to put on a drama production, usually from one of the great farce-masters like Ray Cooney.

The rest of the community supply the reason for doing it. They complete the event by laughing, talking, cheering, sometimes singing and always — and I mean always — leaving the village hall with a smile on their face.

It’s not just us in Stoke Row. I have laughed along at shows in Sonning Common, Remenham, Woodcote and Whitchurch. It’s a staple of village life — or was.

It’s just a memory now for us in Stoke Row. The last time we did it was 10 years ago when the group was kind enough to put on a play I wrote called

The Queen Is Dead
. I hope and pray it wasn’t that which put an end to it. I don’t think it was.

We weren’t exactly brilliant, but we were good, sometimes very good and occasionally excellent — far better than what you might expect from the normal village hall fare.

We didn’t reach the heights of some of the acclaimed local amateur groups in Henley and Wallingford, but we gave a good night out.

There are probably some now living in our village and others who have no idea that we once had this thriving group. It was born out of the WI and expanded by parents from Stoke Row School.

At one time there was even a youth group, and very good it was too.

Now, if I do go into the village hall, I can barely remember that we did it. But it was terrific fun — an annual spring event which the village looked forward to.

People would stop me in the street to ask what we’d be doing next. It was part of the village social calendar, like the annual cricket match against Highmoor — a real local grudge match, by the way, one I played in a couple of times.

I was signed up in 1993. I’d seen a production of

Ten Times Table
by Alan Ayckbourn and was seriously impressed. I wanted to be part of it. Then I got a call from one Gordon Sinkinson, who used to live at the top of the village. Would I like to be in a coarse play by the infamous Michael Green?

Try and stop me. My work schedule had calmed down enough for me to be confident that I wouldn’t be sent away during show week — not always a certainty, but less likely — although there was an occasion in the late Nineties when I was going to be sent to Albania to cover a refugee exodus. Fortunately it went away and I went to Macedonia a week later instead.

So, there we are, a few minutes to go before the curtains open. We always wait for the audience reaction when they do because our set designer and builder always deliver an extraordinary job.

The hall lights are dimmed, the curtains part and there’s a gasp from the crowd followed by applause.

Those sets were nearly always put together by Ray Kelly, who also directed a lot of the later successes. Gordon would also chip in.

I acted on those sets with some really good and talented people — too many to mention them all, but Sam Randall and Liz Hunt stood out and Gordon was always a comic turn because of his ability to corpse more or less at will.

The beauty of village hall drama is that no one expects too much, so when they see someone forgetting a line or improvising that all adds to the fun. But it didn’t happen that often with us. And we always gave more than they were expecting.

Saying that, we would never have got as far as we did without the constant support and involvement of the Morgan family from the Black Horse.

Margaret was a regular and very funny stage presence, Martin would operate the bar with the daughters, one of whom, Claire, was also an accomplished performer with the youth group.

Not only that, they provided storage space for our flats.

But as the years wore on the membership of the group dwindled. When I joined we had about 40 members — not all actors, many of them people who just wanted to be part of it.

They would prepare a meal for consumption during the interval, they would work behind the bar. They would stand at the door, help with the set, costumes, licences, and so on.

But by the end we were down to six people and it became too much. The village still wanted us but we didn’t feel we could deliver with such a low resource base. Why did that happen?

My guess is that at the time there was a property boom and quite a few stalwart members cashed in their houses and moved out of the village. The incomers didn’t replace them and we were left with four or five jobs each instead of just one.

That said, many of those who left kept returning to help with shows. We didn’t lose them completely, but it was a tougher commitment than living a few hundred yards away from the hall.

Those cold winter nights through January and February were a test of stamina and sometimes endurance for all of us. But we did it for the love of it — in my case ego had a lot to do with it, but seeing the community come together was also a reward.

So why mention it now? Isn’t it part of village history and shouldn’t it stay there?

Maybe, if people feel that way after reading this then it will be a sign of where we are and no longer where we were.

But I sense that spirit is back again. Maybe it could translate to putting on absurdly ambitious productions in the village hall.

If a new generation wants to pick up this baton having read this — and it has been lying on the ground for a long time now — then I’m sure those of us still around will be happy to help you.

And this is a rallying call to all those other villages whose amdram may lay dormant. I can guarantee that it will be talked about for months afterwards… one way or another.

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