The History of Lavant Players

by Chris Luck

The 23rd of November 1950 was indeed the great day for Lavant Players. Not only was it the date of the first ever production, but the play itself was was entitled ‘The Great Day’. Remarkably, Lavant Players was founded just 10 weeks earlier on the 5th.of September. It was also rather apt that the local W.I. played a large part in its founding, as the story around Leslie Storms comedy evolves around an imaginary day in the life of the W.I. during the war years. The village is frantically preparing itself for a visit by the President of the United States wife.

Lesley Foster produced the show which received rave reviews in all of the area’s newspapers, and played to packed houses of 160 people on each of it’s 4 nights. ( A full house today is around 120 ).

Tickets sold for 1/- (5p) each and total receipts were £32. The early years saw 2, 3 and sometimes 4 productions a year. These were the days however when each street could probably boast only one or two cars and the same number of televisions. Radio and Theatre were the main forms of entertainment until the early 60’s.

One of the cast for the first ever show was Nellie Squires, mother of our much missed and loved local plumber. Nellie was still performing when I joined the society in 1978. Other cast members were John Arthur, Ethel and Kathleen Brickett, Anne and Mildred Gunning, Alice Pratt, Eileen Balchin, Monica Broad, Kathleen Pryor, Iona Cameron, Jim Skinner and Oriel Taplin. Nellie went on to finally call it a day in 1979.

It appeared that the same problems arose then, as do now, in that there were very few men willing to tread the boards. In 1952 the chairman urged every women to exercise their *leap year privelege* to approach every man in the village and urge them to enroll as members. One of the new recruits was Wilf Miles landlord of the Royal Oak, and for the next few years the society went from strength to strength.

Records from the mid 50’s until 1970 are hard to come by, and as each year passes we sadly lose villagers who maybe could have shed some light in those interim years. It seems very strange that a very successful group producing up to 4 shows a year, suddenly ceases to be.

In 1971, the idea of an Old Time Music Hall was inaugurated once again by the Lavant W.I. The stage then was situated to the side of the hall where the glazed swing doors are now, and the main entrance was to the back of where the stage now is. There were no dressing rooms for the cast, and changing took place behind 2 curtain screens in a corner.

The inaugural show for the 1971 production must have been a nightmare for Norma Ryland the producer, as there were 37 in the cast, with 29 adults and 8 children. Can you imagine 37 men, women and children changing behind 2 curtains today. Despite all these difficulties the cast battled on cheerfully. When I joined in 1978 facilities were better, but on occasions we shared changing rooms with great amusement, which I suppose was slightly more acceptable in those days.

The cast for Norma Rylands first production included Cyril Clark, Peggy and Cedric Fletcher, Stan Snow, D.Ryland (maybe Norma’s husband ), Patsy Bonsey, Ronnie Fielder, Rene Hasling, Hilbre Skinner, Dennis Lunnon, Mary Burne, Stan Bicknell ( the village policeman ), Penny Hardwicke, Len Marchant, Doris Clarke, Hugh Ryder, B? Newham, and Mr.& Mrs. Don Plant.

Renovation took place to the Hall in 1972, and with Norma Ryland moving from the area, the committee decided that it was just not possible for a show to go ahead. Nevertheless, the Music Hall production of 1973 was a great success, and with the stage moved to its present position, the changing curtains were dispensed with, much to everyone’s relief. For whatever reason there was no show the following year. Dick Carter took over the helm in 1974 and produced shows until 1977, the year in which the lovely Wendy Collins joined the society. I joined the Lavant Music Hall, (as it was known then), the following year. Wendy was now the producer, and those who remember her will know what a great asset she was to us for many years. With imagination and flare in abundance combined with a loving and warm personality to match, it was a great loss to us all in 2002 when she sadly passed away.

Music was by courtesy of the amazing ’Alfie’. She played her heart out on the piano for more than 20 years, never missing a rehearsal or a show. Even at 84 when she stepped aside for Ann Sparrow, she was always available at home to help out with solo numbers for those that needed it. Her last show as an accompanist was ‘Cinderella’ in 1988.

In the mid 80’s the Lavant Drama group was formed and ran alongside the Music Hall until 1992 when they amalgamated and reverted back to The Lavant Players. The year 2000 saw the arrival of Kathryn and Richard Wignall. Between them they have produced and designed really high class shows, and along with Paula McGovern directing the music, have put on shows comparable to many provincial theatre companies. These include Joseph, Honk, Peter Pan, Oliver, The Railway Children and most recently "A Million Dreams". Viv Coulton took over in 2005 with memorable shows like Sleeping Beauty, Robins Arrow and the wonderful Pinocchio. Rosie Hoare, Jennie Pressdee, Brigid Whyte, Patric Butler and the late and lovely Hugh Ryder, have all produced and helped out keeping our society on the road. Tony Hudson was our next director who devised and created a string of shows which took us in a different direction but always remaining true to our roots. I must also mention Fred Barber our late chairman who contributed a vast amount of time not only as his role as chairman, but as the sound technician [despite being partially deaf!]. Both he and Dan Vivash our lighting man were invaluable to us, as are dozens of backroom staff who contribute enormously.

Prior to our current technology, lighting was ‘assembled’ in the garden shed of Cedric Fletcher. There were boxes of plugs, sockets, adaptors and very suspect cable from floor to ceiling, some dating back to pre-war days. Our first stage lights were made from catering size fruit and vegetable tins salvaged from the back yard of the Royal Oak pub. During shows, these ‘spotlights’ became very hot, and the smell of hot metal wafted around the hall for one and all to suffer. However, in all the years Cedric took on the roll of lighting and electrician, we only had one crisis, and that was when an overloaded power socket melted. I can’t be sure, but I think the fire service were called, and we were somehow allowed to finish the show.

Today we have professional lighting and sound systems, most of it wired into the now enclosed roof space. This more than halves the ‘set-up’ time, and with Tony Bleach’s mobile platform, this part of the procedure is now completed in a couple of hours.

I would like to share one by-gone incident with you that concerned Cedric and myself. I was perched up on the rafters awaiting Cedric to hand me up some lights which he was collecting from the kitchen, when I accidently knocked the ladder away which crashed to the floor. Cedric was very deaf, and although only in the kitchen when this happened, he never heard a sound. Unbeknown to me he had then decided to go back home via the kitchen back door to collect more cable. My shouting and whistling was finally heard by a complete stranger walking by. I must have been up there for a good 20mins.

Cedric was one of many characters. Today for whatever reason, they are few and far between. We all tend to be moulded into a form that the world would like us to comply with. I suppose Cedric along with : Patsy Bonsey ( cross her at your peril ) the Wardrobe mistress, plus Muriel Moreno and Norman Smith who frustratingly delighted us in their inability to be aware of very little of what was going on around them, come to mind. However, ask Norman to give an interview on radio and he made the rest of us seem insignificant. I remember once, we were asked to go down to Radio Solent in Southampton to talk about one of our productions. The rest of us, including the presenter, might just as well not have been there. We overran the interview by 3 or 4 minutes which is a long time ’on air’,

Sadly characters like this are now hard to find, although many of our village Rectors have risked ridicule over the years, including our wonderful David Parker.

Luckily, incidents have been few and far between. As most will know, the Hall is situated at the lowest point in the Village. This causes problems with flooding both in the car-park and to a lesser degree in the hall itself. Despite this we have literally waded through our shows the best we could. I won’t mention problems with the loo’s , just to say it is surprising they operate at all considering the complicated drainage system that is in place in that part of Lavant.

One of the bravest people ever to appear on stage was a young Brazillian girl student staying in the village. What courage to come over here to study, and been thrown to the lions in a village production.

The only incident I ever experienced was from the show Evita. Whilst half way through singing the David Essex song ’Oh What a Circus’, a gentleman in the audience abruptly got up and walked out. We subsequently found out that he was an Argentinian holidaying over here, and had his own views on the subject. A more recent and light hearted one was during the show Pinocchio. We had constructed a carriage to be brought on from the Green Room and wheeled up to the stage steps. As we turned the carriage round into the main aisle, we realised that we hadn’t allowed enough space between the rows of seats to turn. The outcome being an announcement for the people seated in the obstructing rows, to kindly pick up their chairs whilst we manoeuvred round.

It all makes for what village shows are all about, and I sincerely hope that Lavant Players carry on this tradition for many years.