Stan Haynes chronicles the long and eventful history of The Thrapston Amateur Dramatic Society.
(Taken from the January 2003 issue of Amateur Stage)
“It was 1951″, says Prudence Goss, our longest serving member. “The play was Mountain Air and I appeared in a bathing costume. The assistant stage manager waited in the wings to wrap me in my dressing gown as I came off.” Half a century later our society put on Philip King’s Who Says Murder? with its nude girl carried off in a fireman’s lift. We’ve come a long way.
Thrapston Amateur Dramatic Society began life as the Corn Exchange Players in 1913 when Mr S C Ainsworth invited musicians and would-be actors to stage an evening of country house entertainment, finished with Personally Or By Letter by Ian Hay. A letter from the playwright confirms that this was the play’s first public performance in England.
The Society was formed in 1927, with 24 vice-presidents subscribing ten shillings and sixpence (52p) and 87 ordinary members two-and-six (25p). TADS’ first play was Peg O’ My Heart, the society paying £22 for a man to erect the hired scenery and stay for a week. Five pounds from the profits was given to charity. In those days the committee used to decide which actor would take which part, and needed three meetings to cast The Sport of Kings for 1928. It was in that year that the plea for electric light at the Corn Exchange was finally answered.
Thrapston, a small market town had flourished, with its navigable waterway the Nene (say Nen) its two railway stations and its foundry, the Smith and Grace Screw Boss Pulley Company, who made agricultural implements for the world. TADS vice-presidents included most of the local landed gentry. In the cast of The Irresistible Marmaduke, 1923, appear the names of Dr E St Clair Gainer and Miss Dorothy Smith. Two years later in Captain X they are Dr and Mrs Gainer, thus uniting two of the town’s leading families. Their son, Dr Nigel St Clair Gainer, is now the society’s president.
Sadly, the town has lost much of its heritage. Both its railway stations closed, pouring their traffic on to the arterial A604 road through the High Street. This became the A14, bypassing Thrapston, but not before the town was torn apart in a road-widening scheme. Two town centre hotels where the society had rehearsal rooms were demolished and the Corn Exchange ceased its role as a community centre to become an auctioneer’s saleroom. From 1962 to 1975 TADS took their theatre to the local school hall. Not the most suitable venue, this hall doubled as a gym and could not be curtained. The acoustics were such that the audience could hear better in the back row than the front. The school became costly as hire charges went up, though rehearsals cost nothing as we enrolled as an evening class, the director acting as tutor and being paid.
We had a lucky break in 1976 when we were offered the use of Smith & Grace foundry canteen by our producer’s father, the works manager. The workforce had dwindled, the canteen was in good repair and we were delighted. Smith & Grace kept the heating running at all times and the place was within easy walking distance of our audience’s homes.
On the outskirts of Thrapston is the old Union House, an imposing building of local stone. The District Council had taken over this now somewhat derelict shell, building a brick annexe and using it as a works depot. TADS had the use of four rooms in the old building. Here, in the principal room of the old house, stage sets were stored and built. It’s here that our late president, stage manager and set builder should be mentioned. Cyril E Diamond had been apprenticed as a joiner had played the piano accordion to lead his own dance band, had taught himself photography and built his own enlarger. His spare bedroom was his dark room and he earned his living as a freelance photographer. Much of his work lay in covering show jumping events for Horse and Hound Magazine, with jobs for the Northants Evening Telegraph. He compiled and illustrated his own history of the town and the society. It’s Cyril we have to thank for our comprehensive archives in the town office.
Cyril made a friend of Osborne Robinson, set designer at the then Northampton Rep. We still have his drawings, and he always built his set in miniature, each flat carefully numbered, before starting the real thing. Between moving out of the school hall and into the factory canteen, he cut down the eleven-foot flats to eight feet, building both stage and proscenium for a new venue. Raked seating for an audience of 80 came later.
The new theatre opened with a costume comedy, Constance Cox’s adaption of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime. The intimate atmosphere lent itself to the blood-curdling Count Dracula and The Ghost Train. It was here that a leading member, Teresa Chapman, wrote and directed her own full-length play, the ghostly Ashes of Roses, completing the script when rehearsals were under way.
TADS spent sixteen happy years at Smith & Grace before the firm’s eventual closure. The site is now a housing development. The District Council refurbished the old Union, and moved in. We’ve happily settled in the town’s former cinema, now the Plaza Centre, a building owned by the District Council and looked after by a management committee. Storage is in a twenty-foot trailer parked at the back, and we dress in the old gallery, reaching the stage by fire escape.