Monday, September 29, 2008

Theatre in Wolverton - 1958

Last week I visited the Church Institute, probably for the first time in 50 years. It is now MADCAP Centre for Performing Arts; structurally, the building is little changed.

The stage is a proscenium arch type and was the only kind known to our Edwardian forebears, but the present incumbents have built a thrust stage in front of that to give themselves more production flexibility. Modern lighting hangs from the ceiling tie rods and modern blinds have replaced the old blackout roller blinds. The parquet wood block flooring is original and has now lasted exactly 100 years.  The architect was John Oldrid Scott, who, like his more famous father, was responsible for the design of an extensive range of ecclesiastical architecture across the country.
I've written about the Church Institute before, but I now want to reflect on its role in theatre production.
Typically theatre was not a very accessible experience for Wolverton's inhabitants. Only large towns and cities had professional theatre companies in the 1950s. Northampton was relatively close with the Repertory Theatre and the New Theatre. Oxford offered the only other provincial alternative, otherwise it was London. I do not recall Bedford having a professional theatre. The Northampton rep. used to put up weekly posters outside Dimmocks Grocery store on Aylesbury Street, so they must have attracted some regular theatre-goers from Wolverton. The New Theatre was, I believe, largely given over to Variety Shows. I have some photographs of my father singing there in the 1940s which would suggest that this was so. I do recall going to see pantomime there as a child.
Repertory theatre was probably very hard work - rehearsing next week's production during the day and performing the current production at night, with two weekly matinees. I think we were taken to see a Shakespearean production once as a school party and I know that on my own initiative I went to see the rep's production of Sheelagh Delaney's "A Taste of Honey", which was the hot play of 1958.
But back to Wolverton. I think touring companies would come through every now and then. I do remember the D'Oyly Carte touring group coming to Wolverton in the late 40s, because my mother boarded some of them in our house. This was my first encounter with thespians. Touring Variety Shows also came to Wolverton  and usually performed on the stage at the Works Canteen. Local amateurs and semi-professional entertainers frequently put variety shows together; several were held at the Top Club.

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