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The History of RST

Romford Shakespeare Theatre

Formally known as Romford Summer Theatre

In 1960, eleven local amateur dramatic societies, under the auspices of the Romford and Hornchurch Theatre Association, joined forces to present "Shoemaker's Holiday" in the open air at Harrow Lodge and Raphael Park. The brainchild of the Romford and Hornchurch Recorders, the association was spearheaded by Frank Everett of the Chameleons, with the purpose of promoting dramatic art in the district and uniting local enthusiasts in plays that would normally be within the scope of any single society.

The successful venture into the larger arena led to a second production in 1961: "Lady Precious Stream," which was performed in Haynes and Raphael Parks. However, by 1962, it was proving increasingly difficult to accommodate the various conflicting interests of the different groups, particularly when trying to arrange rehearsal and performance times. The enterprise collapsed, and the RHTA turned its attention, instead, to promoting a local drama festival of one-act plays after an earlier attempt to focus on full-scale plays had met with failure. In that same year, however, two of the participating companies, who had already forged close links, decided to go it alone and produce "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Raphael Park: the Romford Civil Defense Players (later renamed Comedy Players) and Romford Children's Theatre, founded in 1949 to bring live theatre to local schools. Thus, Romford Summer Theatre was born!

"There's not a shirt and a half in all my company;  and the half shirt is two napkins tack'd together and thrown over the shoulders like a herald's coat without the sleeves." 

King Henry IV Part 1: Act IV Sc.1

SHAKESPEARE ON A SHOE STRING

SHAKESPEARE ON A SHOE STRING

An earlier attempt had been made in the open air at the beginning of the 1950s to achieve the same objectives as the Romford and Hornchurch Theatre Association. The Romford Theatre Guild was launched by Victor Serebriakoff of the Vagrants, but it fizzled out after he left the area in 1953 following two productions in Raphael Park and Langtons Gardens: "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Bartholomew Fair," where the audience had to struggle out of their deckchairs to sing the National Anthem at the beginning of every performance.

From both companies, one man stood head and shoulders above everyone as an actor, producer, director, and costumier: Edwin Rudd, the founder of Romford Children's Theatre. It was he, together with Gordon "Bumble" Humby of Civil Defence Players, who inaugurated Romford Summer Theatre, one directing its first four plays and the other adopting the role of business manager. Edwin also designed and made the costumes with the help of several members of the cast, one of whom possessed a flair and dedication that chimed with his own: Con Chandler, a young actress with Children's Theatre. Together, over the years, they would build up a wardrobe stock that, with some ingenuity, could be presented over again. But not all costumes were revived museum pieces; at least half of those in each production were newly made.

Their creations evolved from other people's cast-offs, from jumble sales and remnants off market stalls. Unwanted curtains and furnishing fabrics were their most valuable assets, providing heavier and better quality materials. And they were able to give free rein to their imaginations, as the majority of Shakespearean Comedies do not demand a set period. In 1975, for example, they moved from the flowing Byzantine designs produced for "The Winter's Tale" the previous year to the stylized costumes of the Victorian era in "Two Gentlemen of Verona." They would, at times, emphasize certain items: collars in one play, sleeves or extravagant headwear in another; and, for the 1968 production of "The Taming of The Shrew," codpieces. The 1970 version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" featured the traditional designs of classical Greece but in vibrant colors, while the court scenes in "Love's Labour's Lost," in 1976, were themed on every possible shade of green.

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Con and Eddie had one golden rule: if the actor who was to wear the costume didn't like it, then it had to go. To them, people were more important than clothes, and no one could be expected to give a good performance if they didn't feel right. They asserted that, after all, costumes were only accessories to the performance and that the play was the thing. "Heaven help the company," Eddie once mused, "if the audience response is only that at least the costumes were nice." However, those of us who have appeared on the amateur stage can confirm just how much a costume can enhance a performance. Even today, as Romford Summer Theatre becomes increasingly dependent upon other sources to supplement its wardrobe, the legacy of Con and Eddie remains at its core.

Behind the Scenes

BEHIND THE SCENES

"Doth the moon shine that night we play our play?" 

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Act II Sc.2

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It is certain that their enterprise would soon have floundered had Eddie and Bumble not inherited from the Romford and Hornchurch Theatre Association a superb crew of technical enthusiasts: Grantly Chandler, Romford Children's Theatre's factotum who would alternate acting with stage management; Barry Jones, the music and sound man for Civil Defence Players; and Bob Gedge and Peter Gould, lighting and sound enthusiasts from Arden Players.

These unsung heroes, with their teams, would be the first to arrive at Raphael Park to set up their equipment, be on duty throughout the entire performance, and be the last to leave, long after the actors had basked in the spotlight of the audience's applause and headed for home. Little could be left during the day in a public park, and a lot of lighting paraphernalia, for example, would have to be stowed away. In earlier years, the power cables had to stretch to a neighboring house to obtain a current, and even today, with a more sophisticated supply, there is not enough electricity to light the foliage in the rockery until after the interval when the tea and soup urns have been switched off.

Refreshments were taken over by the spouses of cast and crew in the late 1970s after a concessionaire's experiment to cook burgers and sausages backfired, their irresistible aroma proving too great a distraction to the audience and cast alike. For many years now, French bread and tomato soup have remained the staples. Indelible in the memory of the actors, however, was the mulled wine dispensed to them by Doll Humby and Joyce Meade in the interval.

Also lingering in memory are the musical selections of Barry Jones. Music can lift a play, reflect a mood, and ease the transition between scenes, for which purpose Barry, steeped in music since childhood, was able to source beautiful melodies from the 13th to 17th centuries. In contrast, by 2010, individual directors were choosing the music, and the park swung into the rhythm of the "roaring" twenties - encapsulating the new, brazen spirit of womanhood - to which, rather appropriately, "The Taming of The Shrew" had been set.

As the music is all that the actors are able to hear from the back of the rockery, Grantley devised a system to ensure that they enter the arena at their appointed time. Connected via a microphone relaying stage sound to a loudspeaker on her desk, the Stage Manager summons the actors in readiness for their entrance with her microphone connected, in turn, to a loudspeaker in their dressing room. They are then sent to wait by one of the red lights, positioned at intervals around the rockery, to await their cue from a green light. It is a daunting task, requiring the utmost dedication and concentration throughout the entire course of the play - surely the single most demanding role during the performance.

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THE PLAYS THE THING

"The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical,tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited." 

Hamlet Act II Sc. 2

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Frank knew that if the open-air theatre were to prosper, it would need to supplement its diet of perennial favorites with the less well-known lighter comedies: "Love's Labour's Lost," "The Comedy of Errors," "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (which James Rimell directed in 1975), together with more exacting works that would tax the resources of even the very best in amateur theatre.

 

Shakespeare's tragedies were rejected out of hand. Even if the company were to possess actors capable of sustaining such major tragic characters as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (and, over time, it has had more than its fair share of such talented individuals), the sylvan setting would hardly be conducive to the portrayal of their tortured souls. Nor would the plays provide the type of entertainment anticipated by an audience on a balmy summer evening. Neither were the histories deemed suitable material, despite the tremendous comic scope for actors playing Falstaff and his cronies in the two parts of "Henry IV": too many testosterone-fueled clashes and conspiracies, too few female parts, and the eternal conundrum of casting anything remotely resembling a convincing body of fighting men. But the caliber of performers assembled by the two companies comprising Summer Theatre did enable its directors to contemplate producing the more complex comedies: "Much Ado About Nothing," "All's Well That Ends Well," and "The Winter's Tale," where audiences would be forced to endure the Othello-like jealousies of Leontes before enjoying the frivolous rural idyll after the interval.

By 1966, Romford Summer Theatre had been in existence for two years longer than either of the previous companies, and the strain was beginning to tell on Eddie, whose first loyalty was to Children's Theatre, while Bumble had no appetite for directing on such a large scale. The open-air dream, inspired by Victor Serebriakoff and later revived by Frank Everett, seemed once more to be in danger of dissipating. However, when Frank Willcocks burst upon the scene in that year with a rumbustious romp, "The Merry Wives of Windsor," he galvanized the company: the final element in ensuring the long-term survival of Summer Theatre was in place.

Having made a guest appearance with the company the previous year, as Orsino in "Twelfth Night," Frank joined Romford Children's Theatre following the closure of the society he had founded: Havering Players. An intellectual of no mean note, he schooled Con Chandler so that, by 1977, she felt able to direct herself, without compromising in the slightest her roles as wardrobe mistress and secretary of RST. Together, they would be a major force in the company for many years to come.

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In 1988, Eddie died peacefully, aged 80, with his dog at his feet and the script for the forthcoming season at his side, while the other mainstays of the company were not getting any younger. It was thus that the first of a new wave of directors, who would help to re-invigorate the company, had been welcomed in 1997 - Alistair Faulkner of The Guildonian Players followed by Marion Churchill in partnership with Elliot Porte, both Summer Theatre stalwarts; Glenda Abbott, who cut her teeth with Kytes Drama Group; and Vernon Keeble-Watson, whose pedigree included the Chameleons and Kytes. It was the last who was audacious enough to move into territory where even Frank Willcocks had feared to venture, tackling the darkest of all the Bard's Comedies: "Measure for Measure," and directing the company's first tragedy: "Romeo and Juliet."

THE FIRST PRODUCTION

THE FIRST PRODUCTION

"One of the best-loved of Shakespeare's plays" 

Ralph Richardson

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Another play draws to its close with the warmth of the lights set against the night sky; the end of a magical evening. But perhaps the most enchanting of finales is when, as the actors assemble for their curtain call, one of their number steps forward to bridge the space between performer and audience.

Rosalind, in "As You Like It," flatters the crowd in order to solicit their applause; the tamed shrew, Katherina, beseeches the women to honor their men; the clown, at the end of "Twelfth Night," and Hymen, in "Love's Labour's Lost," drag everyone back to the stark reality of everyday life; and, in one of the most spine-tingling moments in theatre, Puck, from Romford Summer Theatre's most enduring play, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," steps into the spotlight - his fellows blanketed in the dark - to apologize for the touches of malevolence in the play before bidding the audience farewell.

"So good night unto you all

Give me your hands, if we be friends,

And Robin shall restore amends."

"The Dream" is the quintessential Shakespearean comedy: entertaining and full of laughter, ideally suited to a setting in the open-air, its course corresponding with the change from early evening to dusk, to nightfall as the three main groups of players - lovers, rude mechanicals, and immortals - seamlessly intertwine.

In 1970, a drama critic praised, "the touch of professionalism that would stand the test of a Regent's Park airing," while Marianne Grant, N.S., F.R.S.A., a supporter of Summer Theatre since its early days, wrote to Eddie following the 1981 production, "My heart simply spills over, and I have to put down on paper what we all feel. I went with my two friends and family. Having made the rounds in London lately - seeing this and that show - we have come to the conclusion that 'The Dream' in Raphael Park just about topped the lot. We laughed until we ached."

THE ARENA

THE ARENA

"This green shall be our stage, this hawthorn bush our tiring house" 

A Midsummer Night's Dream Act II Sc.2

Apart from the first production, which was staged on the raised, circular area of the rockery, much of the action took place on the greensward in front, which sloped away to the oak tree at the back of the enclosure, so that a large proportion of the audience, reclining in their deckchairs, could see little of the actors. This would be remedied when a cable-laying exercise to improve the electricity supply to Havering-Atte-Bower passed through Raphael Park, leaving tons of spoil in its wake. It was Gordon Humby who, shortly before he died in 1983, recommended that it be used to raise the auditorium. Joyce Meade, who had often relieved Bumble as Front of House Manager, continued as such until 1990, after which Margaret Willcocks did the honors until her death in 2005.

Over the years, the bushes in the rockery have gradually been supplanted by coniferous trees, the first of which appeared in 1971, looking quite out of keeping. They now provide an impressive backdrop to the paved stage of latter years where the space between actor and audience is very clearly defined, unlike earlier times when tarpaulins would be laid down on the grass to improve the view for children. Particularly memorable was the final performance of the 1970 production of "The Dream" when a spell of indifferent weather led to well over 500 people descending upon the enclosure on the last sunny, hot day of the run, spilling over onto the acting area to an alarming extent.

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Production List
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Over 60 years of Shakespeare

RST Productions

2023 - The Merry Wives of Windsor

2022 - The Tempest

2019 - Macbeth

2018 - The Taming of The Shrew

2017 - A Midsummer Night's Dream

2016 - Much Ado About Nothing

2015 - Love's Labour's Lost

2014 - Twelfth Night

2013 - The Comedy of Errors

2012 - The Winter's Tale

2011 - The Merry Wives of Windsor​

2010 - The Taming of The Shrew

2009 - Romeo and Juliet

2008 - All's Well That Ends Well 

2007 - As You Like It

2006 - A Midsummer Night's Dream

2005 - Much Ado About Nothing

2004 - Measure For Measure

2003 - The Merchant of Venice

2002 - The Comedy of Errors

2001 - The Taming of The Shrew

2000 - Twelfth Night

1999 - The Merry Wives of Windsor

1998 - A Midsummer Night's Dream

1997 - As You Like It

1996 - The Winter's Tale

1995 - Much Ado About Nothing

1994 - Twelfth Night

1993 - The Merchant of Venice

1992 - The Taming of The Shrew

1991 - The Merry Wives of Windsor

1990 - The Comedy of Errors

1989 - Twelfth Night

1988 A Midsummer Night's Dream

1987 - Much Ado About Nothing

1986 - The Merry Wives of Windsor

1985 - Love's Labour's Lost

1984 - As You Like It

1983 - The Taming of The Shrew

1982 - The Merchant of Venice

1981 - A Midsummer Night's Dream

1980 - Twelfth Night

1979 - The Comedy of Errors

1978 - The Merry Wives of Windsor

1977 - Much Ado About Nothing

1976 - Love's Labour's Lost

1975 - Two Gentlemen of Verona

1974 - The Winter's Tale

1973 - As You Like It

1972 - All's Well That Ends Well

1971 - Twelfth Night

1970 - A Midsummer Night's Dream

1969  - Much Ado About Nothing

1968 - The Taming of The Shrew

1967 - The Winter's Tale

1966 - The Merry Wives of Windsor

1965 - Twelfth Night

1964 - The Merchant of Venice

1693 - As You Like It

1962 - A Midsummer Night's Dream

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