40 years of drama in the Wychwoods

drama01Regular readers of The Wychwood will have read the recent article about the WI pantomimes staged for many years in the OLD Beaconsfield Hall, adjacent to The Wychwood Inn, or The Red Horse as it was then. As that article described, the menfolk were drafted in to perform as the memorable ‘Cotswold Line’ commuters.

In 1997, shortly before the original Hall closed, Wychwood Players evolved and, for the first time, branched out from the pantomime formula to stage Confusions by Alan Ayckbourn, a set of three one act plays which included the hilarious catalogue of disasters that is Gosforth’s Fete. The following year saw the New Beaconsfield Hall opened, and Wychwood Players ambitiously tackled their first full length play, The Devils Disciple, by George Bernard Shaw. This was directed by the late Tony Butterfield, and boasted a cast of 29 with many others helping behind the scenes.

Over the following years, Wychwood Players have gone from strength to strength, producing a varied programme of entertainment, but the genesis of the group in the WI pantomimes has not been forgotten. In a short article it is impossible to name check everyone who has contributed, but many of the early pantomimes were written with great aplomb (and some inspired puns) by John Drew, who also led the group as chairman during the early years.

In total, the Players have now staged over 50 productions, comprising comedies, serious drama and musicals, as well as the aforementioned pantomimes. These have included supper evenings, sometimes set around two one act plays or short sketches. Particularly memorable in the early years was Oh What A Lovely War, originally devised as a theatre workshop production by Joan Littlewood. This was directed by Alice Burns, Hall Administrator, who also succeeded the long serving Wynn White as Parish Clerk. The musical play, staged in 2003, was in the form of an end-of-pier show, performed by a troupe of Pierrots, and it included some poignant First World War songs which left this cast member, for one, feeling very emotional.

Another early success was The Winslow Boy, a period piece by Terence Rattigan, staged by the group in 2001 under the direction of Dudley Thompson, who went on to succeed John Drew as chairman for many years.

Yet another was Outside Edge, by Richard Harris, with a cricketing theme and more drama off pitch than on, tracing the convoluted relationships that can develop in a competitive field.

Over the years, the Players have returned again and again to Alan Ayckbourn.  Arguably one of the best contemporary playwrights, he manages to combine humour and pathos as well as a deft touch and skilfully observed human characteristics. Ayckbourn productions have included Ten Times Table, Relatively Speaking, Time of My Life, Table Manners, Bedroom Farce and Confusions (staged for a second time in 2015).

Two of Noel Coward’s best known plays have been brought to the stage: Hay Fever (2004) and Blithe Spirit (2011), and Terence Rattigan’s one act play about a failed schoolmaster, The Browning Version, was produced in 2006. The latter was a particular favourite of this writer. There was an atmospheric production of J B Priestley’s chilling play An Inspector Calls in 2007, and in 2015 Dangerous Corner peeled away the veneer of respectability and hypocrisy of its characters. Most recently, there was the much heralded production of Priestley’s Laburnum Grove.

One of the most challenging plays to date was Neville’s Island, directed in 2005 by Mandyrae Jessey. Take four characters, stranded on an island in the Lake District on a very cold, wet and foggy November morning, having just crawled out of the lake, and what can possibly go wrong? With all four characters on stage almost constantly, and fourteen separate scenes, this was hard going. To begin the play, we all immersed ourselves in the changing room showers, then walked the length of the Hall outside in mid-winter, made our entrances through the audience and then changed out of our wet clothes on stage. Phew!

drama02The late Tony Hinds, screenwriter and producer on most of the Hammer House of Horror films, who lived locally, very generously allowed the Players to use two of his scripts, Frankenstein (2006) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (2013) without paying royalties. As an aside, the average costs of mounting a production are around £2,500, and on occasion have been as high as £3,500, so good box office numbers are essential.

In recent years, the group has tackled several hugely popular TV series, with productions of ‘Allo ‘Allo (2013), Vicar of Dibley (2017) and Blackadder Goes Forth (2018). It is always daunting to portray such well known characters as these contain, but judging by audience feedback they were well received.

Many productions have employed elaborate and visually appealing sets which are a credit to both designers and builders alike. It is invidious to single out examples, but Humble Boy (2009), with its elaborate garden, and Wuthering Heights (2016), which portrayed both that property and Thrushcross Grange on stage simultaneously, come to mind.

One of the most difficult and time consuming jobs for the committee is to choose suitable plays for our audiences. Countless scripts are read, considered, sometimes chosen and then, for a variety of reasons, subsequently put down. As I write this piece, we are in the depths of the coronavirus epidemic, and have been obliged to cancel a planned production midway through rehearsal. However, rest assured that we shall return to the stage just as soon possible!

Phillip Croxson

Chairman, Wychwood Players

June – July 2020