Change of Direction
The establishment of the U.K.A.E.A. brought an influx of new people to the area and the society suddenly found itself with an enlarged membership. Many had joined from other amateur drama groups throughout the British Isles and brought with them a wealth of experience and enthusiasm. Until now the Society had been the unquestioned hegemony of Frances Curtis. Inevitably, this caused a certain amount of conflict where various individuals wanted the opportunity of putting their ideas into practice and to mount productions of their own. The friction increased when Mrs.´C` resisted this move to emancipation, who regarded it as an undermining of her own authority and a lack of confidence in her ability. That this was never intended, was not understood by her at the time, and only gradually did she come to accept this.
At the Annual General Meeting of the Players in the St. Leonard´s Church Hall in 1960, these views were clearly and forcibly expressed. After much discussion, the general feeling within the meeting was that Mrs.´C` whilst retaining her position and unassailable right to be the Society´s principal director, should make available the opportunity to others who wished to direct some of the future productions. This has previously been incorrectly referred to in other publications about the Players as a ´Palace Revolution.`
It had never been suggested or proposed that Mrs. Curtis should be replaced. Not only did everyone fully appreciate that due to her unstinting and generous patronage to the Society, the debt owed to her was far too great to be ignored, but even more important, she was tremendously admired and held in the greatest affection by the majority of the members. After bearing the responsibility of the Society for twelve years it was extremely unfortunate that she was not been able to appreciate the advantages to both herself and the Society, of sharing the obligation of some of the Players productions. By having other people assume some of the hard work she would be relieved of the increasing burden, and the Society would gain with different Producers seeing things with new eyes. (In those days they were still called Producers) Although Mrs.´C` still retained amazing energy, time was passing, and making the same demands upon her as on us all.
Fortunately, this crisis passed and Frances Curtis soon realised that her position within the Society had not altered. She continued to direct the workings of the Players, although now with the assistance of others, and with a greater participation of the committee members than had previously been the custom. She was a born director, having a clear vision of what was required and the patience to achieve her objective. Some of her productions still remain among the most outstanding within the history of the Society. However, other Directors were beginning to make their mark within the Society, albeit, under her eagle eye. Once, when invited to a rehearsal of the Glass Menagerie directed by Patrick Williams, she was both interested and attentive until at the end, we overheard her say, sotto voce “Ah, that is how you direct, I never knew.” We who had received the benefit of her incredible talent during the past years, were fully appreciative of this intended irony - even though we pretended not to hear!!!
Although the Society had entered into a new period of emancipation, it also suffered from the lack of ´centralisation.` Throughout the history of the Theatre, greatness has only ever been achieved when under the directorship of one visionary. Theatre by committee just does not seem to work towards anything other than acceptable. The genius of a Kean, an Irving, a Baylis or a Devine is necessary to inspire and cajole beyond the capabilities of mere actors. Frances Curtis may not have been of this calibre, but she certainly made us aspire to heights greater than those we thought ourselves capable. Many within the Society will forever be in her debt for the foundations of theatrical technique which she had instilled into us. Not content with her own talent, she also invited professional teachers for intensive weekends of instruction in movement and Interpretation, voice production and elocution and characterisation and make-up. Subsequently, other directors were able to build on these foundations and they, in their turn, were gratified to have the satisfaction of some excellent productions.
One of those who became a regular visitor to Slade End was John Morley whose more famous actor brother Robert, and subsequently his designer nephew Sheridan, are well known in theatre circles. John was a Drama Tutor par excellence and from him we learned more in a week-end than many students in full time drama courses. On various occasions he used our members for demonstration classes of movement and music, at other venues. Following one of these, on one occasion, during a hot summers evening, we impulsively decided to stop off at the new Wallingford swimming pool, on our way home and have a swim. Failing any swimming gear or false modesty, nothing daunted we shed all our clothes and jumped into the water – only to quickly get out again. It was cold! Just as well the local constabulary was not in evidence, otherwise we could all have been arrested for indecency, disturbing the peace, and heaven knows what else. As it was, we immediately recovered, and scrambled into the river – which was considerably warmer, and restored a certain amount of satisfaction to the gentlemen of the company, whose masculinity had been seriously undermined by the cold swimming pool! This was probably the only time in the history of the company, when its members performed in public entirely naked.
In addition to the invitations to professional instructors, the Society had also been affiliated to the National Amateur Drama League and in 1960 I was asked by Mrs ´C` to represent her and the Players at the National Conference at the Shaftsbury Hotel, London. This was to be the occasion of my first introduction to Peter Hall who was then a director at Stratford. Little did I think then, that I should be working with him many years later at Glyndebourne. Apart from the most interesting meetings that weekend, a visit to the famous amateur Tower Theatre, Canonbury had been arranged, to see The Merchant of Venice, with a further visit the following evening to the Aldbury, London home of the Shakespeare Company. We saw Troilus and Cressida with Dorothy Tutin, Max Adrian, and Michael Horden. . Actually it was a star studded cast but these were the actors who as a star struck novice I remember speaking to during the reception after the show.
It was during this period that Francis Curtis accepted the invitation on behalf of the Players, to host a performance by the famous Welsh actor Emlyn Williams who was touring the country with his rendition of Charles Dickens. All the facilities of the Society were put to use at the Masonic Hall where the performances of this stunning virtuoso occasion were played to packed audiences. Whether or not this great actor had been impressed with his reception from the area, he later bought a property in Sotwell where he entertained others from the theatre world. It was not uncommon, on a Sunday morning, to encounter him taking a stroll around the village in the company of Dirk Bogarde, Richard Burton or others of his illustrious friends.
With the establishment of the Players as one of the leading amateur drama societies in the area, we soon received invitations from other local societies to attend their performances, and when occasionally in need of an enlarged cast, we were also invited to join them. Notably, at the beautiful Unicorn Theatre in the medieval abbey buildings for the magnificent production of King Lear, directed by Alan Kitchen, when Denis and I took part, and then again for the Restoration comedy, The Country Wife, with the Players Pat Cree in the title role. Subsequently, I also played Henry in Man for all Seasons, directed by Isabel Craston, but this was at the old Abingdon Corn Exchange. These cast interchanges between our Societies opened a new aspect to our own vision of Drama and helped prevent the parochialism which so often affects small groups. It is always important that members should see what is happening elsewhere and the current Drama Festivals play an essential role which should never be ignored or overlooked by any amateur society.
By the same measure, visits to professional productions remain a constant inspiration of what can be achieved (and sometimes,not) by all, in the non commercial theatre. On many occasions, during the 1960´s, a group of us would ´take off` for Stratford or Oxford, or elsewhere, and saw some memorable productions which have now become part of Theatrical History. The Stratford Jew of Malta which was magnificent and a revelation, and David Warner's Hamlet – which was not! The Zeffrelli Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic, with John Stride and Judi Dench – which became the definitive Shakespeare, The Frank Hauser directorship at the Oxford Playhouse which produced Barbara Jefford in The Lady´s not for Burning, Dirk Bogarde in Jezebel, Zia Mohyeddin in Passage to India, and Judy Dench in The Promise, as well as Michael MacLiammoir´s Importance of Being Oscar in 1963, were all stunning levels of British Theatre which inspired and enthused all who saw them. However we were not so conceited that we ignored other local amateur societies, and we all supported each other whenever possible by attending each others productions. Our nearest ´rival` at that time, was the Barn Theatre, Didcot where, on one occasion, we saw a memorable production of The Teahouse of the August Moon. It was a very atmospheric production with very clever scenery, which transformed the exterior to the interior of the Teahouse. We were all very impressed, until the final scene, when very slowly the whole set began to disintegrate. Even the total dedication of the actors, who continued to ignore the flats collapsing upon them, could not prevent the hilarity among the audience. The tremendous applause at the final curtain was as much for their tenacity in the face of calamity, as for the show. We were heartened that, in our common dedication to ´live theatre,` we were not the only ones who had experienced such disasters – even if not quite so spectacular!
Following the death of ´Granny` Hind in 1965 at the age of eighty-nine, Gov. Curtis decided to retire and Slade End Farm was sold. They then took up residence in a large house in Wallingford where the attics were again used to house some of her collection of costumes, and where we continued to make props. The rest of the Sinodun Players Wardrobe was then briefly stored at Little Wittenham Manor, the home of the Ellison´s who had become members of the Society soon after moving into the area. John had the distinction of being the youngest barrister in England, whilst his wife Kitten who had been a professional actress, became an invaluable asset during her time with the Players. This continued, until they decided to sell their lovely house (which I had helped them decorate) and move to the Bahamas. The wardrobe was then moved to one of the original buildings of the Old St Mary´s Hospital in 1968, thanks to the Administrator, Vernon Chesworth, another long standing and devoted member of the players. Although having distinguished himself in various classic roles, this accomplished and versatile actor will long be remembered as a superlative ‘Carabosse’ in the 1952 Pantomime Sleeping Beauty. It was then that Christina Eke took over as wardrobe mistress, undertaking the thankless task of cataloguing the entire collection. It was while making this inventory, that she realised that many of the costumes could never possibly be used by modern actors. Victorian dresses, and first world war uniforms, which were far too small, were sold to eager collectors. As was a collection of Britannia metal pen holders – probably donated from a local Bank, and a few swords which would not have been permitted on stage. The sale of all these items, which otherwise would have been thrown away, helped raise much needed funds and satisfied the wardrobe mistress’s antipathy of waste. After the various vicissitudes of the wardrobe finding temporary homes in the cottages in St. Leonard´s Lane and at the Gardener´s Arms, Crowmarsh, during the intervening years since Slade End, the urgency of a permanent home again became apparent.
Now that Slade End was no longer available, a home for the masses of scenery which had been accumulated, also needed to be found. Tim Wilder, one of our most talented actors, came to the rescue with the offer of the Old Malt House at St. Lucien´s Wharf. Although the ground floor had been used by Wilders Garage in which to store tractors and farm equipment, the floor of the upper level, under the roof of this enormous and ancient building, had not been used for over a hundred years. The accumulated straw, from when it was a working Malt House, plus chaff, dirt, leaves and the droppings from generations of pigeons over the intervening years, meant that there was, without exaggeration, at least 12 inches of debris to be cleared. Nothing daunted, Denis, Jose and I set to. There were no skips or containers into which to tip all this rubbish and the only solution was to pile it all up at the far end of the loft. By the time we had finished it was difficult to distinguish ourselves, filthy dirty, from the enormous pile of detritus, which we had created. That was the easy part!
In clearing this tremendous amount of debris, we had discovered that in many places the floor had rotted with, sometimes, large holes which needed to be covered. Even the remaining floor did not appear too solid and so we reinforced all of these numerous places with discarded boards from scenery flats. This not only solved the problem of the floor but also reduced the amount of materials to be stored!
We had no hoists and this floor was reached by two ladders, the second leading up from an intermediate platform about ten feet from the ground. Eventually we devised a rope and pulley over one of the roof beams, to assist with the lifting of flats etc., but initially, everything had to be manhandled, first to the platform and then twisted round at a left hand 90 degree angle, to be pulled up to the upper floor level. It all sounds quite easy, if a little Heath Robinson, however, from eighteen feet high and with a very unstable floor, initially it was a scary proposition. After a very short time, any nervousness disappeared with the familiarity of both the height and the task in hand, and we were soon running backwards and forwards with the ´abandon of innocents.`
Even though we now had a weatherproof storage area, we were still without the workshop and studio facilities which were required for pre-show fabrication. Various venues were pressed into service, with the Army Cadet Drill Hall, on one occasion, being used to paint cloths. The preparation for Pantomime was always a problem. Not only was this the show for which a large variety of scene changes were required, but it also took place in the middle of winter. On one occasion, with a foot of snow on the ground, trestles were erected in the garden of Sotwell Manor for the construction of silhouetted flats (the first time this had ever been done) before negotiating them through a small door into my barn for painting. Another year, in order to paint the Panto cloths, the set workers had to negotiate the ´foot and mouth` dip at John Vellacott´s barn in Cholsey. Not for the first time, it was so cold that the water-paint, once again, froze in the cans. That these dilemmas were ´taken in the stride` of the Players workforce, was a demonstration of their complete dedication and stamina.
Although working in these rather extreme conditions occasioned much merriment among the workers, it became increasingly obvious that this could not continue indefinitely. Not only was it necessary for somewhere in which to build and paint sets, to store the growing wardrobe and props department, but also for the Players to have a permanent base in which to meet and rehearse. In 1963 the Players rented St. Leonard´s Church Hall and for the next four years this became the centre of the Players activities. Then, because of a proposed rent increase which was unaffordable by the Society, once again, a new home had to be found. For the next fifteen years the Players endured a peripatetic existence, during which time numerous different venues were used to house the Players activities. Due to the hospitality of the town's Quakers, their exquisite and unaltered 18th century Friends Meeting House in Castle Street was occasionally used for rehearsals. Incidentally, it also provided an authentic background for the publicity photographs used for the Society's production of Henry Miller´s The Crucible in 1972. A ´first production` of Christina Eke – wardrobe mistress turned director. Later, the large panelled room with a small stage at the rear of St Mary´s Church House also was used until 1969. In addition to rehearsals, this location in the Market Square also provided a very useful and practical venue for fund raising occasions such as coffee mornings, bazaars and rummage sales etc., On several occasions the Players were also welcomed by the St John´s Ambulance Brigade in their hall in St. George´s Road. Not only did their presence during the Corn Exchange performances provide comfort and practical first aid assistance to both the company and the audiences, but their help in providing their hall for our use, will always be greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, due to financial restrictions, they are no longer seen during the Sinodun Players productions – they are sadly missed. St. John´s School also provided a venue for occasional rehearsals, as well as supplying their schoolchildren for one of the Christmas Punchbowls. Here, it was, where Tony Barr-Taylor distinguished himself as a superlative storyteller by enthralling everyone present with his armchair reading of The Night Before Christmas. Out of occasions such as these, also came the idea for the formation of the Young Sinodun Players.
During one period the Players continued peregrinations took them to a converted barn behind the Walnut Tree near Cholsey station, which was pressed into service for rehearsals. This was at the invitation of an enthusiastic member of the Society, Debbie Cox. Here also, several memorable after-the-show parties took place, in addition to a highly successful fundraising barbecue, in aid of the Players. Another Pub. Which came to the rescue during this period, was the Gardener´s Arms at Crowmarsh, at the kind invitation of Tony Hume, but this time, it was only for the storage of wardrobe in the apple store and the props in what had been, the stable. Unfortunately, due to the damp mud floor and the depredations of mice and squirrels, this proved not ideal for the preservation of the delicate papier mache props. Another Apple Store to offer emergency wardrobe, was that of Paul Chilton, among his orchards on the Sinodun Hills. A fragrant, if dark and chilly place, the access to which was along a long (often muddy) track. Unfortunately, this also proved not an ideal location, even though we were extremely grateful for this temporary home, due to the previous wardrobe location in St. Leonard´s Lane cottages, now being restored as housing. In the 1980´s, the Players did return, briefly, to their ´roots` in the old village hall of Brightwell cum Sotwell. The Haldane Stewart Memorial Hall and the house in front which served as meeting rooms and accommodation for the caretaker Tom Hammond, had long been sold – the ´new` village hall being located in what had been the Victorian Church School. The house and original wooden hall was now the property of the Players members Gordon and Christine Spenser. Their offer of the use of the hall meant that once again, rehearsals and set building were able to be accomplished in the same place where the Society had begun 40 years earlier.
Highlights – Inspiration – Lessons!
The interest generated by Tony at St. John´s School undoubtedly suggested the idea that there was a wealth of young talent and interest which should be encouraged and used by the Players. This, in turn would propagate younger members within the Society as well as generating educated theatre audiences for the future. So too. the idea for acquiring the Corn Exchange building and converting it into a theatre and home for the Players, was inspired by the long felt frustration and need of a permanent base. However, rarely, I believe, can the Society claim credit for being the inspiration of a spontaneous audience reaction which took everybody by surprise. It was The Vigil in 1962, directed by Denis which set a precedent which has never been repeated. The story of the play takes place in a courtroom where the Gardener of Gethsemane is on trial for ´bodysnatching.` If he is innocent, the basis for the Christian Faith remains intact. If he is guilty, Christianity would be a fraud. The audience is the jury, with the final prosecution and defence speeches made directly to them, and the end of the play being a darkened stage for the audience to consider their verdict. The finale was an empty stage with a gradually brightening sunrise on the backcloth accompanied by a distant singing of the Easter hymn ´Jesus Christ is Risen Today` It was an accolade to our acting and the conviction of our audience that they all, spontaneously rose to their feet and stood for several minutes before calling back the cast with their applause. We were as much moved by this totally unexpected reaction to the production, as they were by what we had presented – not as a religious play but purely as drama. I think we all learned much, that evening, about the power of theatre.
In order that memories do not become too rose coloured tinted it is well to remember that not always did everything turn out as hoped or expected. Although I have an abiding recollection of Sue Butcher singing ´Vilia` round a gypsy camp fire, in a production of Cinderella, and also as a superb Antigone, I also remember when in She Must Kill Tony she not only missed a cue and did not appear on stage, but she also argued that she was not due on for “pages” - then she suddenly froze, cried “Oh my God” and dashed for her entrance. A lesson to all that, even when not in the spotlight, ´concentration` is needed at all times. Another unexpected incident was when Bob Fisher sat down rather more heavily than the chair could stand and ended up in a heap on the floor. Excellent actor that he was, he remained in character as the crusty admiral, cursed, got up and, for good measure, kicked the remains of the wreckage! Forgetting lines is always an actors nightmare, and in the early 1950´s The Winslow Boy, during Tim Wilder´s cross questioning, in his role as the barrister, he was given the wrong answer. He never even blinked or moved a muscle but only repeated the question – very slowly, and thereby brought the play back on to line with – this time - the right response. This production also saw John A, who was playing the protagonists elder brother, who fell and had to be rushed to hospital with a dislocated shoulder. The local Newspaper headlines read ´Actor Injured – Can he perform tonight?` During the performance, Rattigan´s dialogue said “Hello Desmond, how are you? You´re not looking too well.” Desmond replied “Am I not? I´ve strained my shoulder”! Applause and laughter greeted John together with comments from his fellow thespians that “was this not taking realism too far?” Mrs.´C` herself was not above causing general mirth (even if unintended) among the cast, as when during one variety show, she was very concerned about the chorus being dressed correctly for a scene taking place in Holland against a backdrop of tulips and windmills. As they made their way to the stage, we all heard her shouting from the depths of the wardrobe “Make sure all the girls are wearing their Dutch Caps” When her unfortunate slip of the tongue was pointed out, like Victoria, Mrs.´C` was not amused – but we, very much, were!
Not all ´disasters` were so joyful, as when during a total blackout during a Music Hall due to the towns electricity supply failing (not the fault of our electrician this time!) Mrs.´C` pushed on the Quartette. Jose Child, ´Topsy` Simmons, myself and Fred Heyworth, all dressed in faultless Victorian finery and clutching lighted candles, to sing our ballads á cappella.` Fortunately, our programme lasted longer than the blackout. On one other occasion during a Pantomime get out Sid Turley was on stage when an unsecured lighting bar fell, concussing him, so that he also had to be rushed to hospital. He was soon released with cuts and bruises, and the wry remark that “it was a good job, that he had such a hard head”!!!! Having been witness to these various little hiccups it was not so amusing when during the first Market Square Nativity Play, the Archangel Gabiel was struck with food poisoning and ended up so weak that the wings had to be discarded and even then one of the Pageant corner poles, was necessary in order to remain upright. It was said that even under makeup he looked pale! What one does for one´s art !!!
Temperaments and Tantrums
No account of ´Theatricals would be complete without recalling various occasions when tempers would become a little frayed and minor explosions would occur. To be absolutely honest, I can remember this happening very rarely. Either we were too preoccupied with the job in hand, or we then respected the fact that we were in the Curtis´s home. However, I do recall that a certain young lady was at the centre of three separate contre temps. The first occasion was when she objected to the colour I had chosen for one of her dresses in the 1963 Importance of Being Earnest. In addition to playing Algernon to John A`s Ernest, I was also designing this production. Bearing in mind the characters of the Dramatis Personae, I had suggested ´crimson with black braid and feathers` for Lady Bracknell´s first entrance, with Cecily in ´pink and pale green,` and Gwendolyn in ´sand with chocolate trimmings` – very smart and very sophisticated. Although the others were very happy with my choice, when Gwendolyn saw what I had chosen, she abandoned her characterisation and screamed “I´m not wearing that shit colour.” The archive photographs show that she did! It was also in this production in which John A. covered himself in glory, when in response to the question about his birthplace, he emphatically proclaimed “Brighton, Lady Bracknell, is a seasort reside.” He never lived this down! Thence, whenever Brighton was mentioned, inevitably, everyone would cry “Ah yes, theseasort reside”!!! In the years following, at a barbeque, hosted at Cedarwood, the Johnstone home, ´Gwendolyn` again displayed a certain wilfulness, when due to a slight disagreement, another young lady was pushed into the swimming pool. It would seem that this same victim had a penchant for the water, for on another occasion, following a Players' dinner at the Boathouse, she was again involved in a clash of temperaments with the same person, and ended up in the river. The 1959 Waiting for Gillian saw these two protagonists, together in the same production; our victim playing the heroine, and her bête noire the slatternly waitress in a ´Greasy Spoon.` In the event, it was the latter who demonstrated her superb talent as a character actress and won many of the plaudits of the play. Time has had a certain softening effect upon this mainstay actress of the Players – although she still displays a very forceful turn of phrase when the occasion demands!
The only other time I have a very clear memory of tempers becoming very ragged, was during the preparation of a Pantomime when despite exhaustive consultation as to what would be required in the way of props, and much time had been devoted to ensuring that everything was ready for use, Mrs.´C` suddenly decided at the Dress Rehearsal, that she wanted a bucket, with which to milk the cow! Not only that, but it had to be a wooden bucket – not easily obtainable, at night, in Wallingford. Having stormedout of the Masonic Hall and striding past the Fire Station, the designer was persuaded by a very diplomatic envoy, coasting along beside him in her car, to return to an apologetic producer. Chastened by his uncharacteristic display of temper, he set to work and produced the required bucket. So much for ´theatrical temperament,` ´pathetic pride,` and ´pointless gestures.`
The last occasion that I recall when personalities clashed was more recently, when during a rehearsal, the leading lady objected to the designer's presence. This experienced and talented actress claimed that “he made her nervous.” Possibly, he was unsympathetic to the situation, which led to an unfortunate exchange of words and her walking out. That evening, there was certainly more drama off stage than the script required. Subsequently, mutual respect and accord was re-established and happily, they remain the best of friends.
Whereas it is understandable, and perhaps, even excusable, that on these occasions of extreme tension, tantrums should occur, and thereby provide asafety valve for the actor, this sort of behaviour is totally unprofessional and should not be indulged to the detriment of others. Everyone involved in a Production is working under the same pressures and self indulgence has no place in the theatre. Fortunately, in the main, The Players have an enviable reputation for avoiding overt demonstrations of theatrical temperament.
A Home at last
The various vicissitudes affecting the Players during this peripatetic existence were finally resolved at a meeting in the old Church School in Benson Lane, Crowmarsh, where it was decided to explore the possibilities of purchasing a property in order that the Society should have a permanent home. After viewing many venues in the centre of town, which the sub-committee, elected for this purpose, considered unsuitable, eventually in 1975, this long sought after aspiration was accomplished by the players buying the Corn Exchange in the Wallingford Market Square. A team set to work on possible designs under the enthusiastic leadership of Denis Wood, and the Society, motivated by John Warburton, set about a massive fund raising in order to make this dream a reality.
One of the grandest buildings to be used by the Players, as a dressing room during the Nativity Plays in the Square and for both rehearsals and performance, was the lovely and historic seventeenth century Town Hall in the Market Place. In the late 1970´s as part of the Societies Fund Raising on behalf of the Corn Exchange Theatre, a series of one act plays were performed here. On another memorable evening, a beautifully costumed Edwardian Soiree took place. The producer wanted the costumes to be in soft shades which she described as weak tea and coffee. The ever obliging wardrobe mistress, the most talented Therêse Lewis, set to work and literally dyed the required dresses with tea and coffee, in order to achieve the perfect result. An added bonus was the delicate fragrance which wafted towards the audience. It was such an enchanting occasion that all those present, both performers and audience, were extremely reluctant to leave and bring the evening to a close.
In 1978 during the evening of 9th December, Patrick Williams hosted Sir Peter Hall, Director of the National Theatre, at the official opening Ceremony of the completed Corn Exchange Theatre.
In the early 1980´s, the garden and coach house behind the Corn Exchange were acquired by the Players for the construction of much needed rehearsal and storage space. Within these extensions a proper Wardrobe was planned. However, it was not long before this outgrew the space afforded and Jan Castle, our current Wardrobe Mistress and Guardian of this Treasure Trove, negotiated with Ken Lester for storage space in his Hither Croft warehouse. This eternal problem of never enough space, which affects every theatre in the country, still remains to be resolved.
Trevor Twentyman. Sotwell Manor. 1943 - 1996
Address given at the funeral of Frances Curtis in Brightwell Parish Church, June 1983
´One man in his time plays many parts` - As you like it. Act II Scene 7
Others are more qualified than I to speak of the multiplicity of interests which occupied Frances Curtis during her time in Brightwell-cum-Sotwell. Her work with the Red Cross and the W.R.V.S. Her untiring devotion to committee work and to school management meetings. However, it was her overriding passion for the theatre which led her to the founding the Sinodun Players which ensures her memory in Wallingford. I, among many, had our lives indelibly changed through her influence. The first production of Cinderella in the village hall and the subsequent meeting with her opened up new vistas and new loves which have remained unassailable ever since. Her contagious enthusiasm, the untiring giving of herself and her incredible talent were the hallmark of Mrs.´C` as she was soon to be known. For she was indisputedly a ´professional` and somehow whatever she touched became enhanced with her distinctive polish.
Despite her involvement in numerous activities in the area, for much of the time she WAS the Sinodun Players and under her guidance the society blossomed and flourished. The Slade End garden parties have now become synonymous with legend. ´Tentative` pantomimes and ´sit coms` matured into some of the most outstanding productions of any comparable society. All the while she guided and cajoled, making her home ´open house` for everyone within the Society, funding and supporting every venture, always eager to explore new venues and fresh experiences. The Festival of Britain, the Coronation and the anniversary of the granting of Wallingford´s Charter, all provided opportunities of pageants which today would seem impossible to stage, yet it never occurred to her to hesitate. Each success was only surpassed by the following triumph, whether the location was the castle grounds, the river, a local church or a neighbourhood garden, her interpretation of ´all the world´s a stage` was to be exploited to the full and often resulted in her directing a cast of hundreds. Together with all the attendant problems and difficulties, yet always, she remained fully in command.
But what about Mrs.´C` herself? I have one favourite memory of her. Not the dynamic producer rushing about, or the wardrobe mistress always with a mouth full of pins, not the motherly figure ever watchful, ever ready with encouragement and understanding help. For me, I shall always remember a slight, grey haired figure in skirt and jumper with a silk scarf round her shoulders, being reluctantly dragged on stage following the last performance of a show. It was always the same, it was what we always expected, it was what we wanted and it always concluded with her saying that we had been ´such a lovely audience.`
That was the face she presented to the world. In her husband, ´the Gov` she had a devoted partner and his forbearance and support enabled her to lavish hospitality on a scale we have not seen since. Her mother, ´Gran` was a further source of delight. When they were gone her own light was somehow dimmed and the end of a ´golden era` was in sight. Like so many others in the profession she possessed an inner faith which was to stand her in good stead through the various personal sorrows she was to endure. The strength of this belief was far more than the regular churchgoing which was her practice, and never was this better demonstrated than in the reverence and sensitivity of her presentation of the Nativity Plays for which she became justly, and widely acknowledged. They were, for her, an offering of worship and a revelation of her own uninhibited faith. Through her instinct and her art these experiences were often a source of inspiration for many. I remember a dear old nun from St Mary´s Convent at Wantage coming up with tears in her eyes and a blessing on her lips ´for the beauty and holiness` that we had been inspired to portray. It was not only professional expertise that had guided the directors hand. It was also a deep and abiding personal faith.
No doubt there are many stories, many anecdotes and many memories. Some, we all share, and there will be others which we privately hold dear. Rightly we mourn her passing, but the abiding memories can not be of sorrow. She lived a full life, giving out far more than we can individually appreciate. Heaven is now probably being reappraised by that eagle eye, in order to improve its style by her own inimitable touch! There was never any false reticence, neither was there any challenge too great.
Her move, to be with her family in Dorset, was a loss to us, her larger family, which has never been refilled. We are fortunate in having had her with us for so long. For benefiting so richly from her vitality, her generosity and her affection. We remember her, for her warmth and devotion with much gratitude and similar affection. In our time we may have been a ´lovely audience` but to the many whose lives she enriched through her own, she will always remain a ´lovely lady.`
Change of Direction