Colchester's Repertory Theatre: 1940 - 1975:

 some reminiscences, some photographs and a production listing

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Colchester Repertory Theatre

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1947 The Hasty Heart                      

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There have been theatres of a sort in Colchester since recorded time-  uniquely there were not one but two Roman theatres in the town. Records exist for the existence of guild plays and the Colchester men in the middle ages,  Throughout the seventeenth century Colchester had been part of the circuit of the Norwich Company of Comedians. For many years plays had been given in  ‘a good temporary building’ behind the Moot Hall leased by the Mayor and corporation. The nineteenth century had seen that building replaced by a grandiose new building the Theatre Royal, in Queen Street seating 1200 people,  With its magnificent proscenium and forty foot stage, this theatre was  a modern wonder  The silver token that gave the mayor priority booking  is still in the borough regalia. Not only the Norwich company performed there but also public talks such as  “An astronomical lecture wit the assistance of an Eidouranion or large transparent orrerry” or perhaps Crocketts famous performing horses and Poole’s Myrioma.

Its boards had been trod by Macreadym Kean, Mrs Langtry, Edward Terry martin Harvey, Mrs Patrick Campbell and Gladys Cooper.

But early one morning in September 1918, fire was detected in the Theatre Royal and within a few hours nothing remained but the side walls. Today it is the Queen Street repair depot for Firstbus and will shortly be home to an indoor market as part of the planned cultural quarter.

In the meantime the Grand Theatre had opened in the High Street, later known as the Hippodrome and now Liquid/ Envy nightclub. Although it was a theatre for a while, albeit specialisng in variety, it soon succumbed to the modern demand and installed the silver screen.. Six years later the Playhouse opened, but it too, quickly turned to films, reverting only occasionally for amateur musicals and plays.

The Odeon opened in 1931, Designed by Cecil Massey in the Moroccan Style which, under the modern plaster board  tripling  boasts decorated stage boxes and a beautiful  semi-atmospheric ceiling. It boasted a full stage and indeed at one point all the great touring singers appeared there, Cliff Richard, Johnny Laton, the Rolling Stones, yes they played Colchester. 

The Grand Theatre and the Playhouse ( now Weatherspoons) were listed and are protected, but there has been no success in listing the Odeon. Its future is uncertain now, its owner is determined to turn it into yet another nightclub.

Apart from the Colchester Stage Society, the Borough Police Amateur Dramatic club and the Colchester Players there was little or no theatre in the town for some years until in 1937 a young actress called Beatrice Radley wrote in a P.S. at the end of a letter to a struggling drama student at RADA   called Bob Digby “What are the chances of a Repertory Theatre in Colchester? Make you a wholesome answer” ( Hamlet)  Bob wrote back a single characteristic word. “Fine”

 Bob Digby was a man with the gift of the Gab and a silver spoon in his mouth. A hugely imposing man with a booming voice and dressed with what can only be described as shabby gentility.  His political views were somewhat left of socialist and he had a habit of being generous to those who had nothing. . When I first got to know him, I called him Mr Digby “Call me comrade Bob” he instructed. My mother instructed me to do nothing of the kind.

 His Elizabethan Ancestor was the Elizabethan adventurer Kenelm Digby. Here he is. I think you might spot a resemblance/    Kenelm Digby was known as  “The Ornament of England” To me its to be sort of ornament that a particularly fond aunt with no taste whatsoever might give, and you just have to put it out when she comes to stay, but let that pass.

Bob’s Colchester roots were at the great house at Kings Ford in  Layer Marney which his grandfather- another Kenelm Digby -  had built,  It seems that the house was sold for financial reasons, and the family moved to Hoddesston/   It was this money which Bob had inherited which set up and indeed subsidized the theatre for the next 34 years and  fitted the theatre out with  second hand seats, a proscenium and stage extension borrowed from the  Colchester Players and very basic lighting. The stage was 15 feet deep and 22 feet wide, and boasted a platform stage left to hold the rudimentary and almost certainly lethal lighting controller operated by  the two Herberts – not a variety act but Messres Thompson and Woodhurst   The theatre seated 363 people, pretty well  one for every day of the year. Later a raked floor was added and the seating increased to 499

The chosen site was The Albert Hall and School of Art in the High Street. Its still there as the Co-op bank . Its façade  is  in Classical style, single storey with attic. Central bay of three arched entrance doors with two Doric columns between; outer bays, each with tall round-headed window. It had been built as a corn exchange in 1845 and was later converted into an assembly hall and art gallery in 1925, which housed the school of art, later moving to the Institute on North Hill

The building belonged to the Corporation, and had been used intermittently  by the Colchester Players who had expanded the platform stage and build a proscenium arch. The Corporation were persuaded to let it at a peppercorn rent. For the fledgling company to use alternate weeks.

 The caveat was that all the pictures that hung on the wall were to remain as an art gallery, open to the public on demand. I can recall two vast pictures high up on each wall, they must have been fifteen feet by ten each,  One was a  panorama of Dutch Refugees fleeing from something or other. There was also a couple of pictures of the Bluecoat Boy and the Bluecoat Girl. I also heard that there was a Gainsborough and possibly a small constable along with many other scenes of a local nature in the theatre, and in the Balcony Bar. Later Bob Digby added a picture of his own: a sketch painted by a German prisoner of war using as I understood it a toothbrush and home made paints.  It depicted a performance of Hamlet. Here it is.  I wish I knew what had become of all these pictures, especially this one, but they simply disappeared. If anyone has any knowledge of them I would be glad to hear about it…

Behind the theatre and approached by a passage through Cullingford’s Stationery shop next door was a the St George’s Hall, built as a public hall. . The Theatre were allowed to use part of this to store their scenery. I spent some time in there over the years fascinated by the dusty flapping scenic flats and cut out trees. There was a basement approached via a trapdoor :The Glory Hole” where all the furniture not in use that week were stored.  A door was cut into the side wall of the stage which led straight into this passage, but it was impossible to get scenery through there. Instead it had to be carried into the street and back in through the front door. When the wind got up, unless you held on very tightly, you stood more than a fighting chance of finishing at the other end of the Street. This was made ten times worse when the workshop had to move to Trinity Street, and everything had to be carried from there.

The actors were housed in a row of tiny rabbit hutches formed- literally from cardboard sheets bought as a job lot from a company which packed fuel tanks. Later the walls were made permanent with breeze blocks and metal half-doors.  The actors toilets ( which were also used by all the bus crews in Colchester by arrangement were separated from the public ones by a thin wall, and most intervals the actors would listen for comments good or bad through the wall.  Most days the actors could be found in Neil and Robarts during the day and the Waggon and Horses or the Fleece after the show where they graciously acknowledged the compliments..

Audiences were presided over by the House Manager and goodness knows what other jobs besides , Mary Rawlings, a lady of ‘a certain age’. Dressed in a faded slightly and dusty green velvet evening gown, she would stand at the front door and greet each and every member of the audience by name and saying goodnight personally to everyone at the end.. She always seemed a little worse for wear, which was evidenced by the small pile of empty Johnny Walker bottles in her office.

She , like Bob, drank a great deal – some said that she drank Meths! I can certainly remember her swaying over me with knockout breath fumes! She was very kind to us Kelly children though, always a huge tin of sweets at Christmas. She has two of our kittens at home in Constantine Road. She called one of them Whiskey and the Other Brandy. I had visions of her standing on the doorstep last thing at night calling them in by name.

During each interval she would sweep majestically to the front of the stage and stand there in splendid glory, gently swaying and occasionally hiccupping ready to receive the compliments and (rarely) complaints. Following her were Fred and Eileen who carried a trestle table and Hep and Molly with an urn of tea and biscuits and the ice creams. A sort of tea party among the women and children of the town ensued for the next fifteen minutes while the men repaired to the upstairs bar for more convivial refreshment and vied to buy Robert Arthur Digby  one of the many drinks of his day.

My father was the Director producer, Bernard Kelly , and on the strength of that,  I was in the theatre as often as I could possibly be and became a familiar sight among the regular actors and actresses doing any small errands and jobs that might be asked of me. The first time I ever set foot on this professional stage with a real audience, I was shouted at by Wallace Evennet who wanted me to stand in a certain patch of light. I didn't like the light in my eyes and stood somewhere else. I was twelve, I was Tiny Tim in "A Christmas Carol", at Colchester Repertory Theatre, and I have the programme to prove it

Once, I was there during the day watching a rehearsal, when I was dispatched at high speed to Chapel Street where Fred Bird the caretaker lived, with an urgent message that the pile of coal in his beloved boiler room in the theatre was on fire. He didn’t seem to be best pleased to see me, and seemed to take an eternity finding his coat while I hopped from foot to foot urging him to hurry.

 

Now it really is important to say at this point that  although at its peak the Rep was producing over forty plays per year, the standard of production  was staggeringly high, and the plays chosen mostly for their quality.
When I was young I could have seen 46 plays in a year:

Some were popular comedies and West end successes Like The Hasty Heart, See How they Run, Arsenic and old Lace , but there was drama  a plenty: Peter Shaeffer, Ibsen (twice, , both Hedda Gabler and the Master Builder) Noel Coward, Private lives, Oscar Wilde The second ~Mrs Tasnqueray   impressionist drama – The ascent of F2 
Thrillers: Gas Light, the Poltegiest George Bernard Shaw,  Man and Superman
Shakespeare of course, Hamlet ( where my father played it with a broken rib sustained in  a set building accident the week before ( yes, they all mucked in, office people as well- and that was just one year.

What I am wanting to say here was that the standard both in choice offered and in the standard of production was very high indeed, .Ok so the sets were basic and yes, to be fair they wobbled a bit, but the acting was experienced and impeccable. And where can you see forty good plays a year now?

The Chief Director, Wallace Evenett, a sort of Doyen of Repertory producers was adept at turning a production around in less than a week.

Heres a typical schedule for a week

Monday
Set up furniture and props and costumes , then final rehearsal for this weeks play , Afternoon Dress rehearsal, and evening First night.  Scenic artist to sort out scenery for next week and start to paint it.  Stage Management to have list of needed props furniture and costumes.

Tuesday morning
Give out the parts for the next play but one. Then read through  next weeks play  and then work on Blocking Act One. Free time to learn act one , then get ready to perform in this weeks play. Stage management send spare people out to borrow props and furniture and order hired costumes ( actors had to have their own basic outfits including frocks and  suits, casuals and dress as well as top hats, Bowleres, flat caps, Ladies big and small hats. Special  and period costumes were hired by the management.   They also returned last weeks borrowed pieces.

Wednesday
Block Act two and work on it, run act one.  Perform matinee of this weeks play. . Then perform evening show of this weeks play. Learn act three in odd moments Find time for the pub.

Thursday
 Block Act Three and  work on it. Stage management to have all props and furniture ready.  Afternoon run acts one two and three.

Friday
run whole play. Twice if possible. Start to learn next weeks play and then perform this weeks again

Saturday
Run whole play again, then do matinee and evening performance. After show, all hands to break down set and carry it to workshop. Get new set in and set it up, complete with props and furniture  Stage management to pack up borrowed props and  furniture.
Sunday:
A day off unless it was really difficult show.
And all the time thinking about the following week.

 

 When the  rep was first opened in 1937, they set up a Repertory Circle, which later was renamed the Friends of the Repertory Theatre, who raised money,  and generally supported. They formed a vital link between the town and the company as well as being very loyal “Monday Nighters” 

Probably the most loyal  Monday nighter was the Bishop of Colchester The Rev Dudley Narborough. Here he is. After a wartime ministry in the blitz-proof crypt at St Martin's in theFields he arrived to tend the flock in Colchester and its rural environs.. An immensely popular local figure  hroughout the fifties and sixties, he augmented his duties by becoming governing chairman of both the Colchester Rep and the Grammar School  He came to every first night and then again on Thursdays. The actors always knew he was in- he sat in the centre of the front row and laughed uproariously at every single joke.

 But in about 1958, an event occurred that split the Colchester Theatre world in two. Frank Woodfield, a very popular actor who played all the older leading men and character parts found himself summarily dismissed. The Theatre Club was outraged and demanded an explanation as to why he had gone. No answer was forthcoming, and the club withdrew its support and ostracized Bob Digby and anyone else they could identify as having a hand in this unspeakable outrage.

My mother who was at that time an active member of the club and went on all the day trips to other theatres and social occasions. found herself ejected- ‘because you are one of them!” and received icy hostility from the Colchester friends establishment.  But neither Bob, nor my father could reveal why he had to go..

 But the split with the theatre club grew deeper and there were all kinds of movements to have the theatre closed down. The playwright  Stella Martin Curry was dispatched by George Young to tax Bob with his drinking the profits away. On hearing this all Bobs actorly instincts kicked in and he went into full histrionic spate of crocodile  tears, laughter, tragic despair and red-nose comedy before making a notice “I am a lush” which he wore around his neck on and off for a week.

There seems to be a reason however for Mr Woodfield's premature retirement. However pending further evidence, this section had been redacted. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

As time went on and money became a little easier, the productions went fortnightly rather than weekly and two producer/directors could do alternate weeks. They could then do even more ambitious plays. Bernard Kelly alternated with James McInnes. I recall a superb production of Under Milk Wood which has burned itself into my memory, with an elaborate multi-layered set.

The theatre continued until 1978 but then things got very expensive and  the prospect of a new theatre seemed ever far away.  Bob Digby’s bottomless pockets found that they had holes in - and even the bar and catering operation was not producing enough to keep the theatre going.. Bobs health had got steadily worse: drink and  strain took its toll, and he was admitted to a nursing home.

 One day he insisted on coming into the theatre. The nursing home no doubt thought that it couldn’t make him any worse than he was and so agreed . They dressed him in his evening clothes and took him to the theatre he loved, where he stood greeting audience members by name.. That same night a light went out of the theatre.  At his funeral, his friend and perhaps his greatest supporter the Bishop of Colchester, the Rev Dudley Narborough said. In his oration  “:Im going to ask you to pray for his soul. But I want you to know that there is no need to. He doesn’t need your prayers. He is all right. But I want you to join me later to drink his soul over the bar”

The actors led by Bernard Kelly tried to keep the theatre going by sheer will power. They failed of course: there was no money to pay actors or even to buy light bulbs.  When David Forder,  the new Director arrived from the Belgrade Coventry, supported by some generous arts Council help, he was appalled by the state of the building and the lack of everything from toilet rolls to light bulbs.   The theatre took a turn for the better and under David Forder’s tutelage and the Artistic Directorship of David Buxton, the theatre thrived again and eventually moved into the much promised new theatre, Changing its name, but not its ethos to the Mercury Theatre.. The old guard had to go of course, like all new brooms, they needed to make changes.

The old Rep building still stands in the High Street as the Co-op Bank. It still has its ghosts. Perhaps not literally, but I still hear the sound of those old audiences clapping and the chinking of that essential cup of tea. I still hear the roar of laughter of the Bishop and the echoes of Hamlet and Professor Higgins, old Falstaff and Charley’s Aunt. I still see the wonderful pantomimes and hear the music in my head. And most of all I can hear and see the figures of Bob Digby and his theatre manager Mary Rawlings as they greeted each and every member of the audience.

Dorian Kelly
3 Gladstone Road
Colchester
CO1 2EB