This article was originally published in the Old Bedalian Newsletter 2021.
By Alastair Langlands, Staff 1973-2001
Roger Fry (later to become a Bedales parent) painted the backcloth for Macbeth, the first annual play. “From its earliest days, Bedales paid much attention to dramatic activities and the Chief’s productions of Shakespeare’s plays were memorable events for participants and audience alike. Though he had no theatrical experience he created and maintained an interest in plays and everyone became keen and fond of it.” (A Journey in My Head, Geoffrey Crump, staff, 1919-45).
Geoffrey came to Bedales in 1919, was appointed senior English master in 1922 becoming the first head of a fully-fledged English department in a school the size and status of Bedales. He insisted that if possible, at least one Shakespeare play should be acted by the older children every year, preferably with some of the staff acting with them. His enthusiasm led in the summer of 1923, with the permission of the Chief, to a production of Twelfth Night on the lower lawn of the garden at Steephurst; the cast consisted chiefly of local people, Bedales staff and Old Bedalians.
The triple arch of Steephurst porch, with a balcony facing south, appealed to Geoffrey as a suitable setting for Romeo and Juliet and there in 1926 he established Steep Shakespeare Players. He needed two years to prepare properly and to secure an adequate cast. He decided on Much Ado about Nothing for 1928.
“An incursion, however, in the month of June of a quantity of handsome young men in magnificent costumes was too much for some of the girls and the scale of the production as a whole caused an undue amount of disorganisation in the life of the school.” So, after Henry IVth, Part One in 1930, the Players moved a mile away, down to the gardens of Lord Horder’s Ashford Chace with his lordship as cordial president: Twelfth Night in 1932. These became monumental productions. The stage set was magnificent, the lavish costumes by Henriette Sturge Moore (1919-25) and a princely cast fitted neatly into Shakespeare’s roles which had been hallowed for centuries.
Players appeared from all over the land. Donald Beves, Vice-provost of King’s College, Cambridge (often spoken of as the finest amateur comedian in the country), lauded by George Rylands of The Marlowe Society, starred as Malvolio and Friar Lawrence and Geoffrey himself as Capulet and Falstaff. Starring was something Geoffrey promoted and here something conspicuous occurred: performances attracted The Times Theatre Critic with sometimes a half page photograph of the cast or a star, Tatler, Telegraph, Sketch, Sphere, Petersfield Post, Hampshire and Sussex News, Hampshire Chronicle and Portsmouth Evening News. There were players from OUDS in Oxford and ADC in Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Music. Joanna Dunham (1949-52) and Tessa Mayor (1929-34) were among pupils who starred. They were accompanied by Harold Gardiner (staff, 1952-68), Basil Gimson (1896-1904; staff, 1911-1947), John Slater (staff, 1952-67), Anthony Gillingham (staff, 1946-70), Robin Murray (1953-59), Christopher Weisselberg (1954-61), Bert Upton (estate staff), E L Grant Watson (1895-1904) and Roger Powell (1907-1915) with music by Harry Platts (staff, 1937-46) and Roland Biggs (staff at various times between 1923 and 1967).
An archive of large albums (12 x 16 inches), lovingly assembled to survive the Players, stylishly portrays spectacular scenes and actors. It would (of course) take Geoffrey two whole years to prepare such handsome shows (where interval tea was provided by the ‘Petersfield Tea Shop’, price 9d).
The ambition and success of Steep Shakespeare Players and the splendidly designed and extensive stage structures, by Gigi Meo (1923-40) and then Christopher Cash (1950-78), were swamped by post-war restrictions and finances.
They made an annual loss. Geoffrey had targeted Shakespeare and from 1923 managed 23 productions finishing in Ashford Chace with The Tempest in 1961. He saw the play as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage and his own regretful farewell to Ashford Chace. He was no longer able to fund these sumptuous productions.
Local press headline ‘Find a home for them on the heath’ badgered the council to action but it was Mary More Gordon (Bedales parent) picking up the threads in 1964 who approached Arthur Gill, the owner of the beautiful Ecclesiastical Court House in East Meon. She inquired if he were willing for his 14th century hall to be used as a small theatre. He was content to have his vast hall filled with a massive structure of tiered seats. The Players had found a fine new interior site. Now called The Court Players they introduced variety. Geoffrey’s last show was Everyman and A Phoenix Too Frequent in 1965; then followed Bae Lubbock’s assistance in Anouilh’s Antigone, Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, Strindberg’s Creditors, Shaw’s Arms and the Man and finally Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Paul Townsend (staff, 1957-64) and Kate Slack (staff, 1962-74), wife of the headmaster appearing.
Bedales staff at this time put on frequent staff plays with Ruth Whiting (1963-2000), Geoffrey Robinson (1949-80), William Agnew (1967-78), Tim Slack (1962-74), George Smith (1959-81), Anne Archer (1971-77, 1986-2008), Philip Young (1971-74 and 1977-2007) and John Batstone (1968-93) and others involved.
But it was the extra mural playing which would not cease: active and valuable members of the company, Kate Slack and Mary More Gordon, assumed organisation in 1978. Still at the Court House, with Arthur Gill’s keen interest, they put on John O’Keeffe’s Wild Oats (1791) which had been revived by the RSC in 1976. Jane Bevan (staff, 1977-83), Nicholas Wood (1974-81), Jessica Cecil (1980-82) and Victoria Chester (1978-80) and players from the erstwhile Court Players’ productions, took part with local amateurs in East Meon. There followed George Colman’s Clandestine Marriage, Pirandello’s Henry lV, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People (with music by Philip Young) and Turgenev’s A Month in the Country.
After Arthur left the Court House, we left too to lodge in Mill Court, Binsted, a fine malmstone barn with a queen-strut roof which could be cold and audiences were encouraged to arrive with a blanket. Twelfth Night was first in 1988 with OBs Phyllida Hancock (1973-80) and Nick Tier (1982-86). To avoid royalties Kate put on a revue We’re Court on the Hop, followed by William Douglas Hume’s David and Jonathan, Stephen Poliakoff’s Breaking the Silence. Isobel Ballantine Dykes (staff, 1983-89), Paul Townsend and John Batstone, Victoria Chester, Will Rye (1987-89), Kate Day (née Fairweather, 1978-85), Polly Wreford (1973-80), Richard Quine (1981-86), Caroline Rye (1983-85), Christian Taylor (1981-86), Lucia Gahlin (1986-88) and Sarah Hulbert (1984-86) with musicians Hannah Rogers (1979-86), Alexandra Harwood (1970-84) and Kristina von der Becke (1978-85) appeared. On each occasion it was necessary to construct a stage and audience seating. It was clear to Kate that the Players were looking for a permanent playhouse.
Lord Bessborough had been a semi-professional actor during his time in Canada. He was chairman of the Chichester Festival Theatre which under the directorship of Laurence Olivier was to become the foundation of the National Theatre. In Stansted Park, Bessborough had recently installed a theatre in the stables replacing one of the 1920s destroyed during the war. Here, at Bessborough’s invitation, the Court Players performed three of Chekhov’s short plays. Chekhov was followed at Stansted by Simon Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms.
Bessborough was extremely eager to have one of his own several plays performed in his new theatre (designed by Peter Rice, parent) which seated 100; he asked me to produce a dramatic reading of his King of Gods. I employed Bedales pupils Georgia Malden (1985-90), Esther Godfrey (1989-91), Helen Isaac (1986-91), Jossy Best (1989-91), Emma Jenkins (1986-90) and staff and the professional Tony Britten who was a friend of the Bessboroughs. This was in 1990 to an audience invited by the host. As a result, I was invited to take the name of the company The Stansted Players, founded by the ninth earl in 1929 but eclipsed by the outbreak of war.
The Stansted Players’ productions have differed from the reverent canon followed by predecessors: I have endeavoured to find plays which have never before been performed (The Noble Jilt, by Anthony Trollope) or have once been popular but fallen into desuetude (George Lillo’s The London Merchant: it was performed annually for 100 years until c1850). These plays cannot be desecrated by reducing the length to One Act of 90 minutes and including four-part songs. We meet at Sparrow’s Hanger in Selborne for 10 days of rehearsal in the theatre.
We played at Stansted Park until that theatre, following the death of Eric Bessborough, was converted into offices in 2000, our last choice being Shakespeare’s Hamlet the bad quarto.
A theatre group ETC, for OBs to meet at school and perform, managed two productions: in April Barney Powell’s (1991-96) The Cherry Orchard and then in September 1999 with Daisy Parente (1997-99) directing The Memory of Water with Lisa Jackson (1992-97), Lydia Leonard (1995-99) and Georgina Hutchinson (1994-99) and some 40 other former pupils. Support was not, however, forthcoming in the following year.
This collapse of ETC bereft the school of OBs returning to play and consequently the Stansted Players were invited to the newly erected theatre drawing an audience shortly before the start of the Autumn term. Since 2001 we have been made welcome and comfortable. When the theatre was under repair we were invited to use the Lupton Hall, before its recent refurbishment as a concert hall, with St John Hankin’s The Cassilis Engagement; the last of four performances was fully booked for a 60th wedding anniversary.
The Stansted Players have never sought stars but rather have given Bedalians opportunity to enjoy themselves for a fortnight during the summer. Staff took part in early plays: Geoffrey Robinson, Paul Townsend, Caroline Walmsley (1981 and 1990s), Graham Banks (1980-2013) and Jonathan Taylor (Deputy Head, 1996-2004) but it is pupils who have peopled the productions. The now familiar singing began with Amanda Boyd (1987-89) as soloist marking the intervals of Lady Audley’s Secret, a performance which began with the National Anthem in the days when an audience was perfectly tuned to stand respectfully. Thereafter the Players have been included for their singing qualities.
Over the three decades about 75 Bedalians have appeared on stage and some have proceeded to a professional career in music or drama: Johnny Flynn (1996-2001), Dan Wheeler (1995-2000), Jack Finch (2003-08), Esther Biddle (1994-99), Elizabeth Bichard (1996-98), Natasha Ruiz Barrero (1996-2001), Grace Banks (1998-2003), Gabriel Bruce (2002-07), Stephen Davidson (2000-05), Anna Dennis (1994-96), Dominic Floyd (1997-2002), Simon Gallear (1991-96), Jo Horsley (1994-99), Sofia Larsson (2001-06), Katie Manning (2000-05), Beth Murray (1986-89), Jo Tomlinson (1997-99), Bart Warshaw (1996-01), William Wollen (1987-92), Olivia Brett (2006-14). The plays have included more than 100 four-part songs dating from C14 to popular music of the present day and it is this playing-and-singing that attracts audiences. An essential part of every production has been the musical arrangements of Nicholas Gleed (staff, 1990-2017) and lighting by Janet Auty (staff, 1990-2015). Each year, towards the end of August, the Stansted Players return to the school, lying in the orchard and rehearsing in the theatre.
- 2020 p l a g u e
- 2019 The Watched Pot (or The Mistress of Briony) by Saki, 1911
- 2018 Green Stockings by A E W Mason, 1911
- 2017 Speed the Plough by Thomas Morton, 1798
- 2016 The Princess Zoubaroff by Ronald Firbank, 1920
- 2015 The Master of Mrs Chilvers by Jerome K Jerome, 1911
- 2014 The Good-natured Man by Oliver Goldsmith, 1750
- 2013 The Cassilis Engagement by St John Hankin, 1907
- 2012 Gretchen by W S Gilbert
- 2011 The Foresters by Lord Tennyson, 1881
- 2010 A Double Falsehood or the Distressed Lovers by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, 1727
- 2009 The Bells by Leopold Lewis 1871 & (world première) Jack o’ the Cudgel by William McGonagall, 1870
- 2008 A Fair Quarrel by Middleton and Rowley, 1616
- 2007 World Première Barchester Revisited by Simon Raven, 2000
- 2006 (first staged production) A Noble Jilt by Anthony Trollope, 1850
- 2005 The West Indian by Richard Cumberland, 1730
- 2004 Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, 1612
- 2003 Vortigern and Rowena by W H Ireland, 1790
- 2002 The Princess Zoubaroff by Ronald Firbank, 1920
- 2001 The Tender Husband by Richard Steele, 1720
- 2000 Hamlet (the bad quarto), 1600
- 1999 Daisy Miller by Henry James, 1900
- 1998 Pygmalion and Galatea by W S Gilbert, 1885
- 1997 The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, 1850
- 1996 Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor, 1860
- 1995 The Lady of Lyons by Lord Lytton, 1850
- 1994 The Frantic Stockjobbers by William Taverner, 1750
- 1993 Lovers’ Vows by Kotzbue, 1798
- 1992 The London Merchant by George Lillo, 1745
- 1991 Lady Audley’s Secret by CH Hazelwood, 1850
2023 will be the 100th anniversary of the Players descending directly from the Steep Shakespeare Players via the Court Players which Kate Slack bequeathed (with a cheque for £74) to the Stansted Players.