After WWI, fostered by the WI, drama became a widespread leisure activity for the general public. In the early 1930s a small drama class was formed in Market Harborough. The following year they were joined by Harold Jones, who launched them into their first full-length production, Candida. This was an ambitious undertaking by a new group and contrasts with the one-act plays favoured at the time.
But with ambition came concern, the press reported “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”. After 19 productions, activities largely ceased with the war bring down the curtain on an impressive First Act!
Romeo and Juliet
At the end of the 1935-36 season, Harborough Theatre put on a production of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Assembly Rooms on Abbey Street. 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. William. C. Wright and Hilda Painter played the star-crossed lovers defying their feuding families in attempts to find happiness together.
In November 1936 the theatre 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’ in Britain. Produced by Harold Jones, the cast included 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. ‘Pygmalion’ would go on to inspire the 1956 Broadway musical, and subsequent 1964 film, ‘My Fair Lady.’
In July 1944 the Drama Society came publicly to life again with The Importance of Being Earnest, produced by Harold Jones 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. Although ticket sales were up, concern around the choice of plays re-surfaced; 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!
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 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 to make costumes and dress sets. During the war, when fabric was hard to come by, they had to get creative, this included using coffin-lining material!
In 1947 the theatre presented Noel Coward’s ‘Hay Fever’. The play 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 supposedly 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”.
In 1944, the theatre presented ‘Dangerous Corner’, by J B Priestley. The play follows Robert Caplan and his wife as they entertain her family, while Robert 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 performance received much flattery, with one reporter stating, “The theatre reached a high point of achievement… it goes to the great credit of the company that they came through some really testing acting with flying colours.”