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Stepping back on to the stage

PUBLISHED: 11:20 17 March 2014 | UPDATED: 11:21 17 March 2014

MEDIEVAL MUSICAL: Ilene Hadden and Gordon Canwell in Camelot (1970).
Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

MEDIEVAL MUSICAL: Ilene Hadden and Gordon Canwell in Camelot (1970). Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

Archant

OH! What a beautiful morning! That is the opening line of a marvellous show-opener, recently revived in a television commercial for car insurance. It would be an appropriate ditty for me to warble every Friday to salute the publication of another Great Yarmouth Mercury to brighten our day.

FULL OF EASTERN PROMISE: a tense scene from Great Yarmouth Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society’s 1967 production of The King and I, with Jack Bacon (back, right) and Dorothy Brown (left) in the principal roles.
Picture: MERCURY LIBRARYFULL OF EASTERN PROMISE: a tense scene from Great Yarmouth Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society’s 1967 production of The King and I, with Jack Bacon (back, right) and Dorothy Brown (left) in the principal roles. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

It was cowboy Curly, the male lead in the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage and screen musical Oklahoma!, who sang that exuberant greeting to a summery day. I have enjoyed the film, and still remember being enthralled in the audience when it was superbly staged by the Great Yarmouth Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society in 1955.

Hitherto I had seen our Ops and Drams only in pantomime, a genre of the society’s performances featured in this column recently, but my introduction to its musicals with Oklahoma! was an uplifting experience, with many more to follow as years passed.

Curly was played by James Aldous but, nearly six decades on, the only other actor I think I remember is Nick Jeffries as the sinister villain Jud Fry, bringing dark clouds over those blue Oklahoma skies.

My recent look at GYAODS pantomimes prompted regular correspondents Danny and Marjorie Daniels – ex-Yarmouthians long resident in Canada – to write that “it was very much related to our 62nd wedding anniversary on January 1.”

MEN OF THEIR WORD: Col Pickering (Gerry Hoare) and Professor Higgins (Terry Bird) teaching Cockney flower-girl Eliza Doolittle to speak and act “proper” in My Fair Lady (1969).
Picture: SUBMITTEDMEN OF THEIR WORD: Col Pickering (Gerry Hoare) and Professor Higgins (Terry Bird) teaching Cockney flower-girl Eliza Doolittle to speak and act “proper” in My Fair Lady (1969). Picture: SUBMITTED

Danny explains: “Miss Lawrence, who ran the Girls Training Corps, put on Cinderella but needed help with the traditional male parts. As I had been helping out (as Staff Sergeant in the Yarmouth Grammar School Cadet Corps) with their drill parades, she called on me to do some extra recruiting in that department.

“Since you highlighted the panto roles of the Ugly Sisters, let me introduce you to Ermintrude - she of the whalebone corsets, big bloomers and ginger wig. My ‘sister’ was Graham Swann (Hortense) while Russell Edwards was Cinderella’s domineering step-mother and - I think, although I can’t remember exactly - that Terry Bird was Baron Hardup, Cinderella’s father.

“Cinders herself was Marjorie, and the rest is history” - a statement confirmed by their long marriage.

His reference to Terry Bird leads me back to the GYAODS for I think his Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1969) was masterful, one of the many great performances to which his fellow members treated enthusiastic audiences during the half-century that these memorable shows were almost an annual treat for local theatregoers.

They were staged mainly at the piers and ABC but also graced the Windmill, Little Theatre and Gorleston Pavilion. The circus-themed Barnum was aptly staged in the Hippodrome ring in 1995 at the invitation of owners Peter and Christine Jay, a crisis period for the society which had just suffered two financial flops - the musical Guys and Dolls (another Peggotty favourite) and a pantomime - and needed a fund-sapping £22,000 to produce Barnum.

Between 1954 and 2002, no fewer than 38 musicals were produced, in addition to other output like pantomimes (a post-war innovation), revues and drama. The quality that was maintained made one wonder how society’s name included the word “amateur”. A full pit orchestra provided accompaniment.

From that 1955 Oklahoma!, most were American imports given audience impetus by their Hollywood treatment and West End runs.

Terry and Ruth Bird, of Avondale Road, Gorleston, long-serving society stalwarts, compiled for me a list of its musical productions between 1954 (Ivor Novello’s Perchance to Dream) and 2002 (Barnum). After the 1955 Oklahoma! - reprised nine years later - came: Zip Goes a Million, Love from Judy (I saw the original 1952 West End version starring Jeannie Carson), Annie Get Your Gun (twice), Carousel, two more Novellos, Fine and Dandy, South Pacific (three times), Flower Drum Song, The King and I, My Fair Lady twice, Camelot, Kiss Me Kate, Kismet, The Sound of Music (twice), Oliver (twice), Hello Dolly (another of my favourites), Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls (twice), Gigi, The Boyfriend, On the Town, Annie (twice), Barnum (twice) and La Cage Aux Folles.

Because Barnum was in the circus ring, there were no curtains...but when it transpired that its 2002 reprise was the end of the society’s musicals era, there was not even a symbolic final curtain to end a half-century of melody and magic.

The big-scale ambitious West End-style stage musical had become a victim of sky-high royalties, overheads and other necessary fees, plus Yarmouth’s lack of a suitable venue. And would anyone be surprised if the current equivalent of the pantomime villain, Health & Safety, made an appearance?

So, the once flourishing and lauded GYAODS is dormant after 116 years. On celebrating its 111th anniversary in 2009, chairman Graham Turner reflected on the glories of past productions but lamented the lack of theatre facilities for current productions for the many local theatre and musical groups, to which the mayor, Tony Smith, responded that “all schemes and plans have so many noughts on these days that it is very difficult to meet all the needs of the community.”

Our borough still has praiseworthy and productive drama groups, like Dusmagrik, but presumably they too have been constrained by overheads and available accommodation. The extensively revamped St George’s must be an encouragement to them, and I believe Gorleston Pavilion is also available sometimes.

I wonder if the planned reopened Regent will prove of benefit to our local drama groups off-season...

Along the A12, all is up-beat, for the Lowestoft Players’ production of Oliver! at the Marina Theatre, and Calendar Girls and Sleeping Beauty, are nominated for top awards in the eastern region of the National Operatic and Dramatic Association next month.

Now, permit Danny Daniels to take a figurative final bow. In his e-mail from Canada, he noted a letter to the editor in the on-line Mercury from Mrs Ann Brook reporting that her father was a Collett, of St Andrew’s Road, Gorleston.

“I wondered if that was the same Collett family of which I had a pal, Brian, at Yarmouth Grammar School,” he says. “His sister, Brenda, played Ann Boleyn opposite J B Whitehead in the GYAODS production of A Rose Without A Thorn on the Britannia Pier in 1946, the year we did Cinderella.”

John (“Jimmy”) Whitehead was the society’s chairman...and our Grammar School deputy headmaster, by the way.

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