Harborough Theatre 1930s – 1940s
Early Days of British Theatre
British theatre can be traced back to the 10th century when religious performances were organised by church ministers. These performances rose in popularity in the mid-1300s with church groups travelling from town to town bring bible stories to the masses. Religious theatre came to an end with the English Reformation and King Henry VIII’s aim to regulate theatre by royal licence. This made way for commercial theatre; but following Puritan orders to close all theatres in 1642, almost two centuries went by before amateur dramatics arose again.
1933 Theatre arrives in Market Harborough
In the early 1930s a small drama class was formed
by the Workers’ Educational Association in Market Harborough with a tutor from the Little Theatre in Leicester. The following year they were joined by Harold Jones, who launched them into their first full-length production, Candida, held with no cost at the Symington Recreation Club Room. This was an ambitious undertaking by a new group and contrasts with the one-act plays favoured at the time.
1934 Public Opinion
With the theatres ambition came public concern, reporting on societies 1934 production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night the press wrote: “Many people were doubtful of its success, financial or otherwise. Events proved that they were quite wrong, for the society did produce its play, not only successfully but brilliantly, and financially the results were not altogether discouraging”.
Performance SpotlightClosing show in 1935Romeo and Juliet
At the end of the 1935 season the theatre put on a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at the Assembly Rooms. A ‘very ambitious’ undertaking according to the local paper; something audiences were warned not to miss, with the principal actor’s performances receiving high praises. The unchanged plot followed the tragic love story of Romeo Montague, played by William. C. Wright and Juliet Capulet, played by Hilda Painter, as the star-crossed lovers defy their feuding families in attempts to live happily ever after.
Performance SpotlightOpening show in 1936Pygmalion
In November 1936 the group presented ‘Pygmalion’. A romantic comedy written by George Bernard Shaw in 1913; the play is thought to have been the second amateur production of ‘Pygmalion’ staged in Britain. Produced by Harold Jones, the cast included Kathleen Plowman as Cara Eynsford-Hill and Hilda Dunkley as Eliza Doolittle. Hilda is said to have been ‘deeply embarrassed’ about having to say the line “not bloody likely” in front of her family and friends.
19391930s Curtain Call
After 19 productions, ending with Misalliance in February 1940, activities largely ceased due to the war. Theatrical entertainment continued with the Freechurch Youth Movement’s sketch plays in the Methodist Hall and charitable performances in aid of the Hospital. Otherwise, the war brought down the curtain on an impressive First Act.
1944Harborough Theatres Second Act
In July 1944 the Drama Society came publicly to life again with The Importance of Being Earnest, produced by Harold Jones and performed at the Cooperative Hall. Boding well for the theatre’s future, all three performances sold out and critics said ‘’Expressions of genuine surprise were heard at the polish and style attained by these amateur players.” In the late 1940s the venue alternated between Symingtons and the Cooperative Hall, where facilities were not ideal.
Performance Spotlight1944Dangerous Corners
Produced by Harold Jones, ‘Dangerous Corner’, by J B Priestley follows Robert and his wife as they entertain her family and he attempts to uncover the truth about his brother’s ‘suicide’. Unpalatable revelations ensue as the story depicts controversial topics for the time, homosexuality, drug use and adultery.
The play saw packed house on all three nights and received much flattery, with one reporter stating “The theatre reached a high point of achievement. Dangerous Corner is abounding with ‘situations’, but has little or no action… t goes to the great credit of the company that they came through with flying colours.
1945Shows Over for Harold Jones
Although ticket sales were generally up, concern around the choice of plays re-surfaced with one reviewer writing “they have had some successes and some, if not exactly failures, productions which appeared to arouse no enthusiasm on the part of the local public.” Since its beginning, the Drama Society had been firmly under the leadership of Harold Jones, but a change in direction was coming with a move towards popularity and Jones being less involved in productions. Following The Magistrate in 1945, Harold disappears from the scene, taking the available scenery with him!
Performance Spotlight1947Hay Fever
Noel Coward’s ‘Hay Fever’ takes place in the Bliss family house. Judith Bliss, a retired actress, her husband, and their two grown-up children have all privately invited guests for the weekend. Although Judith has retired, the nightmare weekend becomes her own private play, and her family become the supporting actors. ‘Hay Fever’ was a challenging play for the theatre, especially for 16-year-old Molly Fordham who was still in school when she played one of the guests. Nevertheless, the play received favourable feedback, rendering it “competent and entertaining”.
Behind the Scenes
In the 1940s men’s costumes were hired from Nathan in London, while the women’s were designed and made by Joan Norman, one of the actresses. Joan’s Husband, Bertie Norman, was a designer at Symingtons Factory and produced the scenery for almost all productions from the 1930s until the late 1960s. He was able to obtain remnants of fabrics from the factory which he and Joan used.