Masque Theatre History
The Northampton Drama Club’s new performance space on Thenford Street was named the Masque Theatre. It was the first private theatre club in the East Midlands. The first production, opening in March 1951, was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
The theatre was largely the brainchild of Aubrey Dyas Perkins, a local solicitor, who chaired the Drama Club for 14 years. He later became chair of the Northampton Repertory Players.
A reporter for The Times, who came to see Cardenio in 1955, described the Masque Theatre as “an intimate and comfortable little playhouse and club,” He also mentioned the “strip of fore-stage, curtained proscenium doors which slide in and out, neat scenery on revolving panels,” and the “diagonal traverses for a triangular interior and excellent lighting.”
Bryan Hall, who joined the group in the early ‘50s, described the Masque Theatre as “a complete and utter death trap.” He explained: “It was situated over a paint shop. One went up a little narrow staircase to what can only be described as a passage where you bought your tickets. You then went into the foyer (see photo above). From there you went up some more stairs to the theatre itself which was very, very small.
“There was really only one entrance onto the stage and that was up a tight staircase from the side of the foyer. At the back of the stage was a small room; if you made your exit into there you were stuck until there was a blackout or the curtain came down.
“I’d hate to think what would have happened if there was a fire because the fire exit meant clambering out of a window and across the roofs; we’d never get away with it these days.”
Jean McNamara joined the Northampton Drama Club in 1947. She said the Thenford Street theatre was valuable for many reasons: “Not only did we do our major productions there and rehearse there, but we had Sunday night meetings for members. We put on One Act plays; we had our own mini-Shakespeare festival with adjudicators and youngsters could learn to act and direct without a paying audience.
“Joan Fisher gave classes on voice production and Mary Honer gave evening classes on stage movement. It was about learning technique.”
Mary Honer was one of the notable members of the group during the 1950s. She had been a ballerina with the Vic-Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet) during the war. In 1952, she directed Lady Precious Stream (pictured above).
Sir Gyles Isham was the 12th Baronet living at Lamport Hall. He was also an actor, appearing during the 1930s at the Old Vic with Donald Wolfit, John Gielgud and Sybil Thorndyke amongst others. Sir Gyles directed Twelfth Night for the Northampton Drama Club in 1951. He was president of the group from 1953 - 58.
During the 1950s, Britain was still reeling from the effects of the war and many parts of the country remained bomb damaged, although Northampton fared better than many towns and cities. Seventeen to 21-year-old men were conscripted into the armed forces until 1960. Food rationing did not end completely until 1954.
During the decade, Britain’s economy increasingly lagged behind other industrialised countries, although unemployment remained very low. And after 1956, the Suez Crisis further eroded Britons’ faith in the nation’s importance in the post-war world.
But the 1950s also witnessed the Coronation which, in turn, was the catalyst for television to be embraced by most households. The 1951 Festival of Britain showcased new fashions and furnishings. The 1950s saw the introduction of fish fingers, washing machines and motorways (the M1 opened in 1959). It was the decade of jive, skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll. And in 1957, Russia’s launch of Sputnik inaugurated the Space Age.
Against this back-drop, one notable achievement by the Northampton Drama Club was the presentation in 1955 of Cardenio, attributed to John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. This was the first known performance of this play since 1613 and it attracted favourable notices in the national press.
A routine was established: four productions would be performed in the Masque Theatre, and a play in the open air in the courtyard of Abington Park each Summer.
Barry Hillman joined the group during the decade, attracted, he said, by the number of contemporary plays performed by the group: “I liked their aspirations in those days. They were very much for ‘art for art sake’; now drama is just a leisure activity.”
42 1950 The Clandestine Marriage by George Coleman and David Garrick
43 1950 Young Man’s Fancy
44 1950 X=0
45 1950 The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni
46 1950 The Circle by William Somerset Maugham
47 1951 A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde
48 1951 The Red Velvet Coat by Josephine Nicoli
49 1951 Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
50 1951 The Typewriter by Jean Cocteau
51 1952 The Man of Destiny by George Bernard Shaw
52 1952 The Dark Lady of the Sonnets by George Bernard Shaw
53 1952 Doctor Angelus by James Bridie
54 1952 Lady Precious Stream by Hui Sing
55 1952 The Eagle has Two Heads by Jean Cocteau
56 1953 Good Night Children by J. B. Priestley
57 1953 All for Love by John Dryden
58 1953 She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith
59 1953 Venus Observed by Christopher Fry
60 1954 John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen
61 1954 Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare
62 1954 Happy as Larry by Donald McDonough
63 1955 Third Person by Andrew Rosenthal
64 1955 A Son Comes Home by Frank Jackson
65 1955 The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden by Thornton Wilder
66 1955 A Village Wooing by George Bernard Shaw
67 1955 Cardenio Att. John Fletcher and William Shakespeare
68 1955 The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare
69 1955 Dark of the Moon by H. Richardson and W. Berney
70 1955 Marching Song by John Whiting
71 1956 Paradise Enow by James Bridie
72 1956 Vicious Circle by Jean-Paul Sartre
73 1956 Eye of a Camel an original revue
74 1956 The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
75 1956 The Mask and the Face by C. B. Fernald
76 1956 Thirty Pieces of Silver by Howard Fast
77 1957 A Sleep of Prisoners by Christopher Fry
78 1957 Sextet an original revue
79 1957 The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare
80 1957 The Romantic Lovers by Alan Brown
81 1957 The Millionairess by George Bernard Shaw
82 1958 The Stronger by August Strindberg
83 1958 Miss Julie by August Strindberg
84 1958 The Gentle People by Irwin Shaw
85 1958 The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay
86 1958 Fading Mansions by Jean Anouilh
87 1958 Misery Me by Dennis Cannan
88 1959 The Bald Prima Donna by Eugene Ionesco
89 1959 The Lesson
90 1959 Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams
91 1959 As You Like It by William Shakespeare
92 1959 Amphitryon 38 by Jean Giraudoux
93 1959 Epitaph for George Dillon by John Osborne and Anthony Creighton
Distinctive amateur drama
in Northampton since 1932
Registered Charity No. 294848
This information is adapted from the history researched and written by John and Greta Hendy with Alison Dunmore; edited and conceived by Rob Kendall and published in 2000. New material has been compiled and written by Martin Borley-Cox.
Page last updated: 13/04/2014 Masque Theatre © 2014
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