The Orwell Players

By David Miller

Let us say straight away that The Orwell Players were not the first group of amateur entertainers to take the stage in Orwell!  A Black and White Minstrel Show is reported in 1937, and another in the 1940’s, and there were probably other entertainers who have not been recorded.  Nothing is ever new!

a group was set up, primarily by Mitch and Elizabeth Thomson

The Players had their origins in a series of entertainments which livened up the Harvest Festivals from 1985 to 1989. For example, a pantomime cow is an essential part of a Church Harvest Festival, is it not? Both the entertainers and the entertained enjoyed these so much that a ‘proper’ group was set up, primarily by Mitch and Elizabeth Thomson, to put on a pantomime in 1988. Elizabeth was not only a talented classical pianist, but also had a love for all music and singing, and was just as prepared to bang out a corny pantomime number as she was to perform a difficult classical piano duet with her son Donald.  Such breadth of talent was of immense value, and the musical performances of the Players were their strongest point for many years.  She and Mitch had moved into Orwell from the village of Wing, where they had previously lead similar entertainments.  It was Orwell’s gain.

By a lucky chance, there were others, hugely talented, ready to participate as well. While it would be wrong to mention some names and to leave out others, it would be equally wrong not to acknowledge the contributions of Diana Smith and her husband Peter, Jean Barton and her husband Peter, and Graham Wickens and Andrea.  Di was a strong director with some great ideas as well as having professional stage training, Jean was a born performer if ever there was one, and Graham was a trained opera singer with a lot of experience. He also made a diabolical pantomime demon. Barry Sharman, another from the earliest days, was in every production for many years. We were lucky with these, and with a whole lot more people besides.

The first pantomime was held at the Village School

The first pantomime was held at the Village School.  The script, to be frank, was very limiting by being in rhyming couplets throughout, but it left the players who participated eager to have a go at a better show next time. Within six months, a ‘German Bier Fest’ was put on, with songs skits and German food, and the shape of the Players’ activity was fixed for years to come. French, Italian, and Wild West evenings followed, and then ‘Big Spat’s Speakeasy,’ with of course a big shoot-out.  Possibly the biggest audience ‘wow’ ever was at the Italian Evening, when the ‘underwater formation swimmers’ arose from the waves in the middle of the gondola scene.  You had to be there to appreciate it. A more placid format was also used, in the shape of Music Halls, which were probably the most universally popular of all the shows. But the loudest audience response was always to the all-male ‘The Ballet Rumbold.’

Meanwhile, the pantomimes continued to improve, with the scripts being home made, and very orientated towards Orwell.  The performers surprised even themselves by finding that they could sing harmonies in four parts very well, and the songs from ‘Babes in the Clunchpit’ are still remembered with affection.

Looking back, it is hard to imagine how it was ever possible to get a cast of up to thirty to a rehearsal all together.  Something must have changed since then.

The youngsters put on their own pantomimes

The story continues through the years.  The Players ceased to have their shows in the school and moved to the Village Hall.  The stage in the Hall was moved to a better position, and a changing room was added at the back.  The Players made a large contribution to the cost of the alterations, and also gave any surplus funds year by year to local charitable causes.  They also made strenuous efforts to encourage younger people.  The youngsters put on their own pantomimes, and put the older ones to shame by learning their lines effortlessly, although it has to be said that at times some of their voices lacked the necessary degree of maturity.

Changes had to be made when Elizabeth Thomson found that her health demanded that she had to slow down with her work.  Teaching all day, taking the village choir once a week, and then having demanding rehearsals with the Players became too much. We had therefore to reduce our musical content, and concentrate more on plays. Sadly, we had to say goodbye altogether when she and Mitch moved to France.

a French dynamo by the name of Sylvie Robinson

Since then, we have continued with more plays, and with a number of farces.  For a number of years, we have had an entertainment spot in the marquee at the Horticultural Society Show – ‘Turn in the Tent,’ compèred by the incompèreable Paul Haskell. And having lost the Thomsons to France, we acquired in return a French dynamo by the name of Sylvie Robinson.  She drove the Players away from a rather slack period, by producing a whole series of elaborate shows and improving the stage and scenery arrangements. It takes someone of her energy to get everything happening again!

a wonderful focus for all sorts and ages of people over all these years

The story from then on is one which is familiar today  –  trying to find suitable material, especially so that the older members of the society have suitable parts, getting enough people to rehearse together in spite of all their other commitments, and finding musical support for pantomimes.  There are of course as many people working backstage to put a show on as there are in the cast, and these posts have to be filled as well. It has however been a wonderful focus for all sorts and ages of people over all these years, and our social gatherings have been second to none.  May it all continue.

Long live The Players!

The Players have their own website, with a number of photos from past productions. Go to https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.472517646265334.1073741834.349024561947977&type=3

SEPTEMBER 2018 : Sadly, TOPS membership has decreased to the point when it is no longer possible to put on productions of the standard we were used to. Like Beauty TOPS is now sleeping, awaiting the reviving kiss of a new generation of would-be thespians with new ideas and ambitions.

Anyone keen on resurrection should contact paul.haskell@talk21.com.

 

The link below takes you to a list of past productions by The Players up to 2014.

 

This page was added by David Miller on 18/01/2013.

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