Historical Background

St. Austell Players began as the St. Austell Society Players in 1945 as part of the St. Austell Society of the Arts. Since then we have presented over 270 shows. Our first full-length play was Fresh Fields by Ivor Novello, performed in 1946 at the County School hall (now Poltair), and it was so popular that owing to the "unprecedented demand for seats" it was not possible to accommodate the orchestra! It brought in the handsome profit of £58 (worth over £1,000 in today's money). Norah Blaney who directed was a distinguished pianist and musical comedy star and was once described by the Daily Mail as "London's most versatile actress". She directed two more full-length plays for us: Dangerous Corner in 1947 and No Medals in 1948.

Norah Blaney,
as depicted in The Tatler

Fresh Fields prompted a writer in the Cornish Guardian to quote Hazlitt's aphorism that a good play is "a bettered likeness of the world with the dull part left out." He went on to say that he thought it an excellent piece of the exemplary amateur theatre and it was a pity that the amateur groups in the district didn't tour locally. "There might even be - as an ultimate objective - some such arts centre convenient for the whole area (at, say, St. Austell) as has been started at Bridgwater …" But it was to be many years before such an objective was realised.

After a period of low membership in 1948 the group went from strength to strength under the enthusiastic guidance of Norman Lawrence, who took over as sole director with Ladies in Retirement in 1949. He devoted almost all his spare time to the group, enabling them to "set a standard which will stand up well to that of any other dramatic society of comparable size, not only in this county, but in any part of these islands."

In 1952 Norman Lawrence was joined by E. Llewellyn Trudgeon and in 1953 by Gwilym Humphreys, and these three shared the directing honours for several years. At that time the Players were producing five or six plays per year, with audiences of up to 400 per performance. The group boasted the luxury of live interval music (when seating allowed!) - for example, movements from the L'Arlésienne Suite by Bizet - played by the St. Austell Society of the Arts' own orchestra under the direction of E. Vernon Ison. A newspaper report on Arms and the Man (1953) stated that "the first night presentation of a famous three-act play, which has taken 12 weeks of diligent, painstaking rehearsal to stage, ought to have been supported by many more than 150 people." How times change!

The Players moved to the Public Rooms (now Courts) as their theatre from January, 1951, the St. Austell Urban District Council having loaned £200 towards the purchase of a stage set-up. Such was their popularity that this interest-free loan was repaid within fifteen months. In the April production of Pygmalion for the first time all the ladies' costumes were designed and made by the members themselves. This was the beginning of the society's wardrobe.

A Midsummer Night's Dream established a tradition of outdoor Shakespeare and in the following summer (1954) The Merchant of Venice was produced in the grounds of the Council Offices (then Clinton House, now in Truro Road). Once again, the weather was unfriendly. According to one lyrical report, "Summer's lease had all too short a date," and "from 'proud-pied April' to the middle of July there was hardly a day's lease of summer." However, for the 1955 summer production of Twelfth Night at the same venue they played safe and had alternative indoor accommodation available. But "against a background of rhododendron bushes" at last the weather was "not only dry but sunny and, after sunset still warm: a contrast to the cold wind and the rain to which audiences didn't say 'Hey, ho!' a year ago." It was Norman Lawrence's swansong as he was leaving the district at the end of the year, having directed 17 of the 24 full-length plays since he was appointed director in 1949. It was "as fine a performance of 'Twelfth Night' as one has ever seen by amateurs."

Such was the strength of the group in February 1954 that we were able to put on The Trial of Mary Dugan by Bayard Veiller, which needed a cast of 35, most of them with American accents. The play was performed without a curtain and so successfully that the County Drama Adviser called it "the best amateur production I have ever seen in Cornwall".

A ballot of the audience at Dear Octopus in 1952 had shown 85% to be in favour of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and this was performed in the summer of 1953 in an outdoor production at Tregarne Lodge (off Trevarthian Road). Between 300 and 400 enthralled schoolchildren watched the play unfold against a background of trees. The weather though "proved to be more suitable for A Winter's Tale. But those who braved the cold were loud in their praises of what they had witnessed." The midnight matinee in celebration of Coronation Night began at 11 pm and the lighting was controlled from a small hut on stilts. "The troupe of tiny and wispily clad fairies, who flitted and shivered amongst the bushes, thoroughly enjoyed themselves."

Ironically, for the next production - To See Ourselves by E. M. Delafield (also in June) - the weather went to the other extreme, and it was too hot to be indoors. Not only that, there had been only two weeks for rehearsals after the previous play. It was left to Ten Little Niggers in October to re-establish the group's popularity, the first of several Agatha Christies snapped up as soon as they became available for amateurs.

During these early years the Players had been regularly competing in the County One-Act Play Festivals (part of the National Festival of Community Drama) and with The Proposal by Chekhov (1953) they were selected for the third time to represent Cornwall in the Divisional Finals. But they had to be content with second place - "We were encouraged by condolences we received from members of the audience, strangers to us, who expressed their complete disagreement with the adjudicator's decision …" The following year we were able to reach the Area Final in Malvern with The Mayor of Torontal by Gwenyth Jones, a feat which was repeated in 1965 with Dr Faustus and in 1971 with Harold Pinter's Night School. But, each time, the Players were frustrated by the adjudicator's decision. A Malvern resident sent her own unsolicited commiserations and congratulations, noting that the adjudicator "was unnecessarily exacting about how the play should be interpreted - too many preconceived ideas about it … I thought your cast put across the subtleties of Pinter's dialogue remarkably well."

The indoor performances continued at the Public Rooms until the end of 1956 when the rooms were sold to a furniture company. The last performance there was Witness for the Prosecution, one of Agatha Christie's most baffling whodunnits. After the production there was a real life whodunnit when a mysterious stain appeared on the stage-cloth, due, not to tea (or blood?) as originally thought, but to permanganate of potash, the origin of which remained a mystery!

For nearly five years the players were without a permanent home, and the County Grammar School hall was only available during the school holidays when it was difficult to attract an audience. For the 1957 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor the Players moved into Roche Victory Hall, which had just been built. The venue was not ideal because audiences were not prepared to make the journey to Roche, and the local residents were not yet "theatre-minded". The play was directed by Gwilym Humphreys. In this case, he had to "scrape the barrel" to assemble the cast of sixteen men and four women, but the performances were of such a standard that it was "hard to believe that nine members of the cast had never acted on the stage before"! There were six major changes of scenery and a great deal of trouble was taken constructing and planning it. However, "when all had been arranged, it was found, upon taking the equipment out to Roche, that, if it was all used, the players would have to make their entrances and exits by crawling under tables, and even swinging on a rope!"

Four productions were staged at Roche before the Players moved back to St. Austell, to the then new school at Penrice. A Trip to Scarborough was the play, and some unrehearsed trips were perpetrated by the very highly polished stage floor. After this we moved to the Church Hall in 1961, the first play being Something to Hide, followed by The Importance of Being Earnest, the first full-length play directed by Freddie Farnham-Flower.

During these years of wandering a Premises Fund had been started by E. Perry Morgan who had become Secretary of the Society of Arts in 1953 and, with his wife Toddy, was a primary force behind the move to purchase Tregarden, our present home, in 1956. At last the Society had a permanent centre and there was room for a theatre to be built on the site. The new premises attracted more members and the Society of Arts' membership grew from 164 in 1955 to 450 in 1960. An ex-RAF hut was purchased for £140 and lovingly re-erected like a jigsaw puzzle with numbered pieces, where the tennis courts had been. With a great deal of voluntary help from members and financial help from St. Austell Urban District Council the new theatre was finished for half the anticipated cost of £10,000. We opened in 1961 with Molière's Tartuffe. In the cast was John Nettles, who had played La Varole in A Trip to Scarborough (1960), and who went on to become well-known for Bergerac on TV. In fact, several St. Austell Players have made careers in the larger acting world. Robert Duncan performed with us for several years, and became notably successful as Gus in Channel 4's Drop the Dead Donkey. Others, from earlier years, were William Robinson, who became 'Dad Luscombe' in BBC Radio's At the Luscombes and Jill Martin who understudied Julie Andrews in the London production of The Sound of Music. Ron Betts, who joined in 1950, in addition to performing, wrote and directed several plays for the company.

Another member who joined at the same time and who went on to direct, besides acting, and designing and producing sets, is Freddie Rowe. In 2000 he celebrates 50 years with the Players, and to mark the occasion he directs She Stoops to Conquer in November. The first full-length production he directed was Emlyn Williams' Trespass in 1962. This was also performed at Truro City Hall. The complicated set took a whole day to erect and most of the following Sunday unloading it at the Centre. In the intervening 38 years Freddie has had many notable successes here, including more recently 'Allo 'Allo (1989), which was something of a coup, being the first amateur production of this TV spinoff, and Thérèse Raquin (1992), which won a 'First' in the Cornwall Drama Association's (CDA's) Full-length Plays Festival.

The tradition of outdoor performances was revived briefly in 1977 when Maryse Jeffery directed a notable Silver Jubilee production of A Midsummer Night's Dream which played in the grounds of the Arts Centre and in the Vicarage Gardens, Tywardreath. Another undoubted success from the eighties was Amadeus (1986), the first amateur production of the play in the Westcountry, directed by Christine Angrave, who also directed the frenetic farce Noises Off in August 2000. In 1988 the Players hit the heights again with Freddie Farnham-Flower's lovingly crafted production of Forty Years On. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (1990), directed by Martin Barnes, and several pantos directed by Ron Rubin had revealed untapped singing talents and in 1992 Maryse Jeffery capitalised on these in directing what was probably our first fully-fledged musical - The Good Companions from the novel by J. B. Priestley, the fiendishly difficult music written by André Previn. Other fond memories from the nineties include Charlie Barnecut's production of John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father (1991) and Christine Angrave's production of Richard III (1993) which had to bring in actors from far and wide to fill the 35 male roles, but at the eleventh hour finally triumphed. These plays gained a 'Third' and a 'Second' respectively in the CDA Full-length Plays Festival and a 'Best Actor' for Mike Meer's Richard. Another, more recent, success was A Chorus of Disapproval (1998) which swept the boards, gaining Best Director for Christine Angrave and Best Actor for Jonathan Aberdeen for his portrayal of Dafydd ap Llewellyn. Finally, in the words of "two loyal supporters" writing to the Editor of the Cornish Guardian in 1970: "It is high time that the St. Austell Players received a word of public praise and thanks for their splendid achievement in keeping live theatre 'alive' in our midst." Long may they continue to do so.
                                                                                            Geoffrey Cooper, 4.10.00