The Early Days (1948 – 1960)
The aim of the newly constituted ‘Drama and Music’ section of The Lytton Club was to encourage as many members of the Club as possible to take part in stage work, and to provide the public with good amateur entertainment.
The Lytton Club Hall, situated in Pound Avenue at this time, had a maximum seating capacity of 170; this number was reduced to 136 due to the provision of portable tiered seats. The financial loss caused by the reduced seating capacity was soon made good by the installation of two front rows of comfortable armchairs at a very much higher price.
The stage was tiny, measuring 14ft x 10ft and only 10 inches high, with no stage lighting and no dressing rooms - but it had possibilities.
The new, completely inexperienced Committee, set about enlarging the stage in time for the first production in October 1948. The rebuilding was a major feat of construction as the original stage was of solid concrete, covered by a parquet floor and backed by a breeze-block wall, behind which were located two store rooms. The work was completed in 4 weeks. The end result was a stage 17ft x 14ft and 1ft 10in high. Also erected was a curved cyclorama, and a highly dangerous but fairly effective system of electrical wiring was installed, which gave a workable lighting layout.
All was now set for the first production ‘Dover Road’ (see inset). This was followed in November by a Triple Bill consisting of ‘Storm’, ‘The Dark Lady of the Sonnets’ and ‘The Jelly Fish’. The production was not well attended with only 190 attending over 4 nights.
‘Little Red Riding Hood’ was the next production, the idea having originated with two members who met in a pub. When one suggested that they ought to write a Pantomime, the other replied ‘Nothing to it, when do we start?’. It was as simple as that. One of the topics that came in for much treatment in this Pantomime was the Stevenage Development Corporation, then in its infancy.
The rehearsals for the production were shambolic, and leaving the hall before 11.00pm was a noteworthy event. The show itself, however, was an unbelievable success. Seven performances were given and a total of 1,040 people attended, which was 84 more than the seats provided! All of the 600 programmes printed were sold. The sceptics were silenced, the press went into rhapsodies and a profit of £150 was made.
Thus was that first 1948/1949 season an eventful and hectic one. The membership grew to 61, the Committee met 15 times in 9 months, a profit of £142.00 was made, and a good time was had by all.
The season opened with some new faces on the Committee, one of whom was Stanley Bunting in the position of Equipment Manager. A provisional programme was mapped out, comprising a Revue in October, full length plays in November, March and May, and a pantomime in January as well as nine play readings.
Teething troubles were soon encountered. The Revue, called ‘We can’t use that’, ran into rough water, the Producer being somewhat inexperienced and many of the cast apathetic. The production was due to take place on October 26th to 29th and so, on September 15th, a special committee meeting was held to decide whether the show should proceed. On the casting vote of the Chairman, the production was given a second chance. This close shave had a dynamic effect on all concerned and rehearsals took on a new zest and sense of urgency. The show was a roaring success, running for 4 nights and generating a profit of £57. Stan Taplin made the first of many appearances with the Players, as did the ‘Quondamn Quartet’ (mixed gender in those days).
The pantomime was ‘Babes in the Wood’, but unfortunately its standard was not up to that of the preceding season. The audiences and the Press showed moderate enthusiasm, but it was played to full houses and made a substantial profit. The play ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ was then cast and rehearsed, the production presenting one interesting technical problem in that it called for one character to ascend and descend a flight of stairs - this with a maximum ceiling of 10ft 6in. The play was a success and attracted an audience of 440.
The season had been highly successful, financially profitable, and the membership had grown to 68.
The year 1950 was a fairly momentous one in the history of the Players, being the year in which the name ‘Lytton Players’ first appeared before the public. It was also the year in which the decision was taken to make the Society much more comprehensive in its activities. This was the season in which Deneys Swayne became Chairman.
At the start of the season matters were not going well for the drama and music sections of The Lytton Club. There had been a major reduction of all activities excepting music and drama, subscriptions were not being paid and the Club was rapidly dissolving. After much deliberation The Lytton Club was wound up leaving the music and drama sections high and dry. Fears of having to look for new premises were dispelled by the County Council agreeing to the buildings of the old Lytton Club being converted into a Community Centre, the name being ‘The Stevenage Centre’. A meeting was held on September 25th 1950, and by an unanimous vote, the name ‘The Lytton Players’ was adopted. The Lytton Players became the first organisation to be affiliated to the Stevenage Centre at a subscription of £120 per annum.
Soon an important further step was taken by the Committee, that of inviting the newly-formed ‘Light Opera Group’ to join The Lytton Players. At a joint meeting of both Societies on December 20th 1950, a merger was agreed and a constitution was drawn up. The subscription was 10/- for those between 15 and 18 and £1 for those over 18. The joint capital amounted to £22.3s.6d.
One member, Alice Harper, expressed the opinion that there might be enough members interested in light opera to make the production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Trial by Jury’ a possibility for May 1951. There was little difficulty in forming the cast of 28 which was soon in rehearsal, also rehearsing for ‘Cox and Box’ which was to act as a curtain raiser. The show played to full houses and was a great success. In this show Brian Hamilton showed his remarkable acting ability playing the defendant. By the end of the run it was realised what great fun Gilbert and Sullivan could be and also what great box-office it was.
The programme for this season was both full and varied, comprising a twenty minute episode in the Hitchin Pageant, 5 stage presentations, outdoor play readings and a visit to the Savoy Theatre to see ‘HMS Pinafore’. Also planned was cleaning and repairing of the wardrobe, a further enlargement of the stage, a revised lighting system and building of a covered way between the stage doors and the Youth Club, which the Players were allowed the use of as a changing room.
Stan Bunting produced the November play, ‘Fools Rush In’. It was extremely well done and attracted larger audiences than both its predecessors. Members who took part in this production included Jose Aked and Stan Staplin.
At this time the economics of amateur entertainment were beginning to assume a serious aspect, the cost of materials was rising and the rent for the Centre had been increased to £150 per annum. The bank balance reached an all time low of £14.16s., but financial stability was restored by the profits from the pantomime ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, which generated £129.00. To achieve this the price of seats had to be increased, the new rates being 5/-. 4/-, 3/- and 2/-. Income was further enhanced by the serving of light refreshments, provided by the ‘Rangers’ under the guidance of Dorothy Griffiths.
‘Edward My Son’ was the next production in March 1952 and was remarkable for a number of reasons. It had the largest cast of any play to date, it had 5 scene changes, the cast contained 3 members of the Music Section, and the Producer was ordered off stage by the Stage Manager and told to ‘mind his own business’.
The season had been a great success. The Drama Section was in good heart, the Music Section had found its feet, membership had risen to 74, and the bank balance reached £95.7s.3d.
The season opened with a dance for members and friends. This was a great success with 80 to 90 people attending and making a profit of £7. Then followed the play, ‘Bonaventure’, which ran from October 29th to November 1st and drew a large audience of 425.
The pantomime ‘Dick Whittington’ must rank as a major flop. The script was poor, the plot unsuited for pantomime, there was little music, the costumes were drab, and only the scenery was up to scratch. The press generously refrained from adverse comment, but the audiences, attending on the strength of previous pantomimes were disappointed. However a handsome profit was made.
In March The Lytton Players were invited to dress a float for the Coronation Procession which was to be held in June. ‘Pepys - And so to Bed’ was chosen, having the advantage of requiring only a cast of one, the part of Mr Pepys, portrayed by Stan Taplin. ‘HMS Pinafore’ and ‘Trial by Jury’ were presented in May. The cast of 33 playing to near-capacity houses with 790 attending in all.
By the end of the season membership had risen to 87, the bank balance stood at £123 and so, at the AGM in May, subscriptions for members over 18 were reduced from £1 to 10/- and for members under 18 from 10/- to 5/-
After the disappointment of the previous pantomime, a lot of thought was given to this season’s production. It was decided to present ‘Little Red Riding Hood Mk II’. Many of the original cast teamed up again, with Deneys Swayne as producer. The show was an undoubted success running for 7 performances to 860 people. The March play was Noel Coward’s ‘This Happy Breed’ which had a cast of 12 and played to 400 people.
At the AGM it was agreed that the end of the financial year should be changed from 31st March to June 30th. Membership had risen to 92 and the bank balance stood at £158.
During this season the seeds of the future ‘Music Hall’ were sown. A dance sub-committee was formed with the brief of arranging a really good dance including a cabaret, but expected to lose money. It was decided to put on a ‘Music Hall’ style cabaret, providing free beer, cider and hotdogs to those attending. One member of the Committee was so convinced that the event would be a failure, that at the dance, he went as far as to advise fellow guests to remain in the bar. Happily he was proved wrong and the rest, as they say, is history.
Under the Chairmanship of Stanley Bunting ‘The Interlude’, as it was called, went on. It consisted of 6 acts of the ‘Music Hall’ genre, including Olive Skells’ new approach to the song ‘Villia’, the Quondamn Quartet featuring Alice Harper, Brian Hamilton, Olive Skells and Deneys Swayne, and a fine female impersonation by Brian Hamilton. The show was a roaring success and the dance, which had been expected to make a loss, instead generated a profit of £22.
During the early months of 1955, due to steadily increasing rents at the Centre, the Committee was faced with making the difficult decision of finding some other less costly venue. It was decided to ask the headmaster of Alleynes’ Grammar School if the school hall and stage could be used for future activities and this was agreed. ‘Ruddigore’ was the last show to be presented at the Stevenage Centre and every effort was made to make it a worthwhile finale. From the opening notes of the first night’s Overture to the final chorus of the last, the show was a roaring success. Harry Heskins made his first appearance with the Society, and 760 people attended, providing a very fitting finale to the Society’s activities at that venue.
During this time, owing to the increasing size of the membership, the collection of subscriptions was proving difficult. It was decided to appoint a Subscription Secretary, Brian Hamilton being the first of several to take on this role. At the end of the season, membership had risen to 91, and the bank balance stood at £114.
On 25th September 1955 The Lytton Players finally left the Stevenage Centre. Then on 13th October the much discussed reading of ‘Macbeth’ took place with only a handful of people turning up. It was apparent that a Shakespearean production was not yet a feasible proposition.
In April ‘Iolanthe’ was presented and played to packed houses, many being turned away at the door, including two bus loads from Bedford who arrived without advance booking. Over a run of 6 nights 1,070 attended. Even so a loss of £8 was made due to the high cost of production and low cost of seats, 4/- and 2/6.
The season drew to a disappointing close with the Treasurer warning that subscriptions might have to be raised from 10/- to £1.
This was a rather uneventful season for the Society. A few new members joined to take part in the Drama Section, which had rather fewer members than it liked. ‘Gondoliers’ was performed with a cast of 49; a notable point about this production being the number of members’ offspring employed in small parts, one of these being Ian Hamilton whose father Brian also played one of the leads.
The bank balance stood at £183 and membership had risen sharply to 113.
At this time The Lytton Players were very fortunate in being offered 2 rooms above Henderson’s shop for costume storage. Prior to this they were being stored in Bill Harding’s House and in Deneys Swaynes’ surgery. The ‘Mikado’ went into production. The costumes, designed by Margaret Swayne, were conventional in style but not in colour. They were very effective and proved to be a valuable asset to the Society, hiring them to other societies and using them again some years later.
The season closed with a very cheerful and well-attended party at the ‘Coach and Horses’ with 88 members attending. At the end of a very successful year the membership stood at 101 and the bank balance was £255.
The October production ‘A Mixed Bill’ was intended to be a means for as many members as possible to get to know one another and also to employ as many on stage as possible - about 70 participated. One of the songs performed at this show was ‘Baby on the Shore’, sung by Peter Currell, Brian Hamilton, Deneys Swayne, and Bob Wilson. The show achieved its objectives being both artistically and financially successful.
This was a very memorable season for The Lytton Players as their first ever ‘Old Time Music Hall’ was presented. A National ‘World Refugee Fund’ had been started earlier in the year, and at a public meeting it had been agreed that the target for Stevenage would be £500. The Lytton Players considered this sum somewhat small for a town the size of Stevenage, and indicated that they might well be able to raise that amount by themselves
After much discussion and some small misgivings, it was agreed that The Lytton Players would attempt to raise as much of this as possible by putting on an ‘Old Time Music Hall’. Some 900 tickets were printed and all were sold out in 3 days at a price of 6/- each. Waiters and waitresses attended the customers dressed in Edwardian style costume. John Austin was invited to be Chairman, and from the opening of the curtain on that historic first night, to the final closing on the Saturday night, the show was an unparalleled success. A cheque for £461 was handed over to the World Refugee Fund.