A Contemporary Account
Written in the Early 1940s
In February 1941, Mr Maurice Keeley, with very definite ideas, particularly in connection with drama and the theatre, was appointed the Community Club Warden Secretary at the Centre provided for their workers (and the town as a whole) by Clarks of Retford, the dry cleaners.
He at once saw great possibilities in the Dance Hall (63 feet by 20 feet) as a potential home for plays to be produced – if necessary alterations could be introduced.
Consulting with Miss Vere Hodson, the Librarian at the County Branch in Retford, the ideas became almost at once a live project, she having fostered production of plays in the town from 1924.
So with Mr Keeley’s enthusiasm and his brilliant direction of mostly voluntary labour (coming from the boys and girls of the Club) and Miss Hodson’s long experience of stage work, a great transformation took place.
A third contributor was Mr Eric Salmon, the leader of a Youth Club on nearby Grove Street.
The band platform was taken down and a proper stage was built with the same wood and that from dismantled trestle tables. The stage measured 19 feet from side to side (including wings) and was 18 inches high.
The proscenium arch was 7 feet 3 inches above stage level with a further 8 feet 9 inches to the ceiling. Access to the stage was possible from one side and from the back. The hall walls were stripped, chipped, replastered and decorated.
Above the new stage, the ceiling was cut away and a narrow “bird walk” built along each side wall at the ceiling level, staircases built running up from the wings on either side to the remainder of the ceiling, which now formed a convenient balcony, out of sight of the audience, but looking directly down upon the stage.
On this balcony are two large switch boards, with a highly complex lay-out of meters, switches and wiring (230 volts with 25 amp fuses). From these boards, lighting throughout both house and stage was controlled by dimmers. Overhead were ropes and pulleys, all numbered, so that stage hands could raise and lower and change scenery, curtains, etc.
There was electrically controlled equipment for gramophones, turn-tables and amplifiers, and an apron stage, giving an extra depth of 3 feet 9 inches. The auditorium rose in three stages enabling the whole of the stage to be seen from every one of the 140 seats in the house – very smart chairs in scarlet tubular steel and black plastic.
The Theatre was officially opened on 6th October 1941 by Dr L. du Garde Peach, playwright and BBC Producer.
A Personal Account
It was on the 6th of October, 1941, at 7.30 o’clock in the evening, that Retford Little Theatre’s first audience saw the curtains slide across the tiny proscenium arch to reveal the miniature stage upon which, during the next thirteen years, no less than sixty-four productions were to be staged.
The members of the audience had made their way to the Community Centre through the blackout of the third wartime winter; and what a ramshackle pile it was that loomed out of the darkness around them, as they arrived!
They stumbled over the cracked and broken concrete strewn with brickbats and shone their well-shrouded torches upon the semi-derelict structure, surmounted by a tall factory chimney, which had once housed the Town’s famous dye-works.
Inside what they soon learned to call the ‘foyer’ it was bright if a trifle garish.
One mounted the steep concrete stairs and crossed the bare-boarded landing and wondered what on earth one was coming to.
But as one stepped across the threshold one realised quite suddenly that here – in these improbable surroundings, in a room no bigger than a church hall and little distinguishable from a barn, one had indeed a THEATRE.
The plastered walls were washed in pale colour, the tie-beams of the roof were dark. The stage curtains were apple-green with deep plum colour at the foot, while in front of them the little apron stage spread beyond the proscenium width to meet two round-topped archways set in curved wings reaching to the side walls.
It was both dignified and gay; very charming, complete and minute, like something seen through opera glasses the wrong way round, or in a diminishing mirror.
One was surprised and enchanted.
But one feeling dominated all others; one was conscious of an ATMOSPHERE.
This was a THEATRE, not a hall; a THEATRE, not just another dramatic society.
This was something of importance.
Another Opening, Another Show
The new Retford Little Theatre group aimed high, and within the first few seasons they had presented plays by Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen, Sheridan, and Chekhov, to name but a few.
Tickets were available either by membership subscription at 10 shillings and sixpence (52.5p) for the season, or 2 shillings (10p) and 1 shilling (5p) per play. Booking was done by Mrs Salmon (apply at Miss Butler’s shop), then in the Cannon Square shops of Mrs Bamforth (Confectioner) and finally of Mrs Rowson (Tobacconist) before the Theatre opened its own Box Office.
At least five plays per season were performed, and over 70 productions had been mounted before, in 1954, the leaking roof, strategically placed buckets and the colds of the actors finally forced a move.
Whilst producing a full season of plays at the Retford Town Hall, members also found time to convert new premises on Wharf Road. Two First World War huts, which had since been used as a school, a restaurant and a warehouse, were joined together with a central corridor to create an auditorium, stage, dressing rooms, scenery and props stores, a lounge, kitchen, box office and toilets. This was luxury indeed!
The new Little Theatre opened in October 1955. In this building, Retford Little Theatre passed the landmarks of both its 100th Charley’s Aunt and 200th The Stirrings in Sheffield on Saturday Night productions.
It was a leaking roof (again!) which, in 1982, caused a structural inspection which suggested that the building was fit only for demolition.
At this point, Bassetlaw District Council stepped in, and a joint design project resulted in the construction of the present Retford Little Theatre on the same Wharf Road site.
The old hut closed with a final performance The Dame of Sark in May 1983 and by April 1984 the new Theatre was ready to welcome its first audience. During those 11 months, Bassetlaw District Council arranged the demolition of the old Theatre and commissioned local builders to create the concrete shell which Retford Little Theatre took over in early January.
A vast team of volunteers turned breeze-block and concrete into a Theatre. Ceilings were put in, all the electrics were installed, a full central heating system, lights, stage gear, curtains, carpets, decoration throughout.
At the same time, as in 1954-55, many of those volunteers also maintained the tradition of the Theatre and presented plays on the stage of the local secondary school.
The new Theatre was opened by Richard Whitmore, then a BBC TV newsreader.
After a few years, Maurice Keeley had moved from Retford to take up a post in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. One of his first projects, as in Retford, had been to found an amateur theatre group.
Later, a young journalist came to lodge at his house and joined the theatre group.
The journalist was Richard Whitmore and in 1984 he was chairman of the Hitchin Queen Mother Theatre, so it was as a representative of our sister theatre that he came to open Retford Little Theatre.
The opening production was Pygmalion which had been the first full-length play produced in 1941.
Since then, Retford Little Theatre has notched up its 300th production The Threepenny Opera and has been proud to present the sell-out amateur première of the stage version of Brassed Off in conjunction with a local brass band, RJB Brass.