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The policy of performing works of a more serious nature from time to time having proved so successful, it was decided to perform Mendelssohn's 'Elijah' in the Town Hall for two nights in April, 1968. Once again, the audience left the Society in no doubt as to their appreciation of the performance. The accompaniment was played, as an experiment, on an electronic organ. The general feeling of those concerned, however, was that oratorio gained from the atmosphere of a church.

The critics, however, were unreserved in their praise. 'With the first glorious rising notes from the chorus', said 'The Gazette', 'it became obvious that the Hitchin Thespians' production of Mendelssohn's 'Elijah' would be a resounding success.'

'How do Hitchin Thespians do it?' asked 'The Pictorial', in a passage strangely reminiscent of a pre-war Press opinion, quoted earlier 'Each production seems to be their best yet, and then they surprise us all by achieving even higher standards the next time.' For the November show - David Henecker's 'Half a Sixpence' - the Thespians had engaged Margaret Boyie as producer. She, however, finding unexpected difficulties in fulfilling her commitments, asked to be released from her contract and suggested that Sadie Sydney, a. professional dancer turned producer, might be available in her place, as, indeed, she proved to be. 'Half a Sixpence' was just the show for the moment and the enthusiasm of those who saw it was echoed by Keith Dobney in the 'Hertfordshire Pictorial' who wrote 'Definitely one for the album of Hitchin Thespians (who) . . . put the whole thing across with terrific verve.

So to March, 1969, when the Society gave performances on two nights at the Town Hall of Carl Orff's exciting and challenging 'Carmina Burana', preceded by a first half of operatic excerpts. If the audience had been attracted by the promise of the operatic excerpts rather than the then comparatively little-known German work, they were certainly stunned and delighted by the impact of 'Carmina', to such an extent that they gave it a standing ovation.

There followed in November, at St. Francis Theatre, a production by Sadie Sydney of Bizet's opera 'Carmen'. This was the Society's first full stage production of a Grand Opera. All parts were cast from within the Society - no mean achievement - and every seat was sold. Even the most faithful supporters of the thespians' wondered if a work of this scope would not be too much for an amateur company. In the event, 'Carmen' was an outstanding success and the Society's confidence was confirmed by no less a person than a trustee of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden who, having seen the performance, declared it to have been one which would not have disgraced a professional company.

Certainly such enthusiasm was much appreciated by the Society and the new President, Muriel Bendail, who had succeeded to the office vacated by Keith Guyton earlier in the year. Muriel, a much loved and respected member, had been actively associated with the Thespians since joining them in 1926. She had been a principal in many shows - her last appearance on the stage being in 'Orpheus in the Underworld' - as well as being a hard-working member of the committee and the Society's Stage Manager in a number of productions, and her appointment was universally welcomed. Thus encouraged, the Thespians presented Eigar's 'Dream of Gerontius' at St. Francis Theatre, for two nights in March, 1970, with an orchestral accompaniment. Laryngitis forced the withdrawal of the baritone soloist at a late hour and a young singer from Glyndbourne, lan Caddy, took over the part of the Priest at the first performance without a rehearsal.

The autumn show, produced in November by Sadie Sydney at St. Francis Theatre, was in sharp contrast to the previous year, being the colourful and exotic 'Kismet', with music based on themes from the works of Borodin. It proved to be a popular choice and demonstrated the Society's versatility in unmistakable manner. It also offered a unique opportunity to some members of the British Aircraft Corporation's Weight-Lifting Club, who acted in the show as litter-bearers for the voluptuous Lalume. It was now some years since the Thespians had performed any of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas, at one time their basic repertoire.

The need of a new format for the spring concert was also felt. Vera Mallett, as indefatigable as ever, undertook the task of arranging and producing a programme of the best known works of Gilbert & Sullivan in a presentation called, simply, 'The Story of Gilbert & Sullivan'. This was given to an audience seated, for the first time, at tables, in Hitchin Town Hall in March, 1971. Richard Whitmore, the BBC news-reader, acted as narrator. As well as the Savoy operas, 'The Lost Chord' figured on the programme, as did what must be one of the most full-bodied renderings of 'Onward, Christian Soldiers' ever to have been heard in the town. Not all the members were convinced of the box-office appeal of the music, but the public quickly demonstrated the undiminished attraction of Gilbert & Sullivan. At the end of the first day of booking, request for tickets far exceeded the number of seats available. The lack of tickets gave rise to an article in the newspapers and street-interviews' with the disappointed. The Committee, making a series of rapid decisions, re-shaped the booking arrangements, added two extra performances and thus enabled all - or nearly all - its eager public to see the show.

Nor was the October production of 'The Merry Widow', by Franz Lehar, at St. Francis Theatre, any less of a success. The first sight of the colourful and glittering opening scene of Act I gave rise to spontaneous applause from the audience. The show was performed to full houses and proved to be a most happy introduction to the society for the new producer, Bill Patenall. One member of the Saturday night audience provided a direct link with the composer, whom she had known when he lived in Vienna.

Bill Patenall, a teacher of drama in the Bedford area, came with an impressive record. Awarded the Clifford Bax prize as Producer of the Year at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he had played in repertory all over the country, as well as appearing in television drama and musicals.


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