1924 was a very important year in England. The very first Labour government was formed by Ramsay Macdonald, and then was replaced by the Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin. Abroad, Lenin died and at home King George V opened the British Empire Exhibition…. and W.A.D.S. was born!
Or was it? It seems from a recently discovered newspaper report that there was a Wordsley Amateur Dramatic Society performing at a Kingswinford school in the late 1880’s! About this group there is very little information, apart from details of one production. It is unknown whether the members continued their activities into the new century. Whatever they did, and whoever they were, they were the pioneers of amateur dramatics in our area, and as such deserve a mention in this history.
Wordsley Amateur Dramatic Society as we know it was formed at the suggestion of Mr. Horace Sutton, who shared his idea with a group of friends. These same friends formed the first Committee: Mr. Sutton became actor/manager, with Mr. E.W. Hatton as President, and Mr. Sidney Evans who was appointed Secretary/Treasurer. Other founder members were Mr. C.W. Todd, Miss Nora Lees, and Mr. A.E. Ballinger who later became Headmaster of the Brook Primary School in Wordsley in 1937, a post from which he retired in 1953.
The play selected for the first production was “East Lynne” – that is to say Mr. T.A. Palmer’s dramatic version of Ms. Henry Wood’s heart-rending novel. It is presumed that it was performed during the first few months of 1925, though it is definitely known that the venue used was the Richardson Hall in Wordsley. This had been built in 1884 in commemoration of a famous local glass manufacturer, and was to be the Society’s base on several occasions throughout its history. ‘East Lynne’ must indeed have been a stirring production, involving as it did a choir singing ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ behind a backcloth, and Miss Daisy Bridgens as the heroine ‘Lady Isabel Vane’ proclaiming ‘Dead! And …. never called me mother!” to bring down the final curtain. Miss Nellie Bowater, a supporter and member of the Society until her death in 1977 remembered the scene well: “…the heroine (Miss Bridgens) died beautifully, reducing all the audience to tears. But the tears soon changed to laughter and loud applause when she sat up in bed, smiling and blowing kisses to the audience.” The local press thought the Society to be rather like a charm before midnight and did not report on the production, but it has proved to be a stronger spell than originally thought!
In 1929 the Society made the first of many moves, to the Olympia Cinema in Brierley Hill Road, the three-act drama “The Thirteenth Chair” opened the run of plays there. For each play, the cinema temporarily suspended the screenings of such classics as “Captain Blood”, “Hearts of the World”, and yes, dear old “East Lynne” for Mr. Charles Fincher to re-organise the stage to accommodate the action. Presumably because of the move to a cinema where the presentations were frequently reported, the local newspaper the County Express visited and printed the first press review. The reporter particularly praised Miss Bowater for her performance, in what was considered a particularly difficult play to do. Miss Bowater’s particular memory of it was of Mr. Sidney Evans ‘dying’ on stage as ‘Edward Wales’, then re-appearing as ‘Sergeant Dunn’ to recover his own body! This feat understandably was a cause of great delight for the audience!
The rehearsals for each play took place in a variety of venues – firstly at Holy Trinity Church hall, and then at the Liberal club in Wordsley until 1933. The venue then changed back to the Richardson Hall, for rehearsal and performance apart from a short break just after the war.
Plays of many different types were performed throughout the 1930’s. Many of these were the ‘new’ drama of the time, and quite often performed only three or four years after their original London production: “The Farmer’s Wife” by Eden Philpotts, J.B. Priestley’s “Laburnum Grove” and “The Late Christopher Bean” by Emlyn Williams were all the latest in modern drama! “The Farmer’s Wife” attracted attention because of the quality of the performances, from Miss Doris Walton as ‘Araminta Dench’ and Horace Sutton as ‘Churdles Ash’ in particular. Charles Hatton produced the play; not an easy task with a cast of twenty-one to control, and his work was rewarded with high acclaim. To consolidate his success, in the following year he wrote and produced a one-act comedy called “Aunts Galore!”, which seems to have shared the evening with that popular old standard, W.W. Jacobs’ version of “The Monkey’s Paw.”
The Second World War succeeded in bringing down the curtain on all performances. No plays were given for the six years of the War, but the Society was not allowed to disappear entirely. To keep interest alive, play readings were organised and so the spirit of the Society was kept alive until peace broke out.
As a result, it was not until 1946 that the Society returned to the stage. This was in the form of a one-act comedy called “The Strutham Amateurs”. Mr. Charles Hatton had left the Society before the War to pursue a journalistic career, so his place as producer was taken by Mr. D.R. Guttery, who later became a very well-known writer and researcher of books on local history. The audience for this play consisted of twenty German prisoners-of-war! What they thought of it has not, for better or worse, been recorded. There were fortunately more people in attendance for the first full play to be performed, which was Gerald Savory’s famous comedy “George and Margaret”, staged in 1947. The cast combined the experience of long-standing members such as Nora Lees and Nellie Bowater, with new names appearing for the Society for the first time.
Plays such as these were performed at Wordsley Community Centre, which was the name given to the old Victorian Arts School. The stage was improvised, consisting of planks resting on crates held together mainly by prayer. Rehearsals had been held there since 1933, with performances taking place at he Richardson Hall. In fact Wordsley Amateur Dramatic Society had been instrumental in the provision of a community centre for the village in the 1930’s, and played a part in plans for the construction of a new building on Wordsley Green in the 1970’s.
In 1953 the Society moved again. This time it was to return back to the Richardson Hall, where the Society’s productions were continually staged until 1966. By this time the Hall had considerable disadvantages. It was showing its age, and had become shabby and draughty through years of comparative neglect. The Society had to fight a number of continuing battles – firstly with the heating system which was erratic to the point of making a visit to a play resemble an Antarctic expedition. It was usually left to a relatively unknown Society member, a Mr. Bob Cotton, to have to make his exit then climb through a back window in order to stoke the boiler. Other battles were external. The growing popularity of television decreased audiences, and also the Hall had no car-park, the Victorians having not had the foresight to predict the invention of the automobile.
The result was that W.A.D.S moved again, this time to the Methodist Church Hall in Kingswinford which had remained the Society’s home until 2017. The first play to be performed there was in 1967, the stage version of Agatha Christie’s “Murder at the Vicarage”.
In 1979 the Society opened up a new field of activity by entering the lists of competitive drama festivals. This first year saw entries into both three-act and one-act competitions, with Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” travelling to Newport in Wales, and the same author’s “Shadows of the Evening” competing in the first round of the All-England Festival at Droitwich. Although the Society did not win any trophies at these initial festivals, the workings of the competition had been opened up and the ‘tricks of the trade’ were soon learnt – constructing and removing a set within strict time limits, ensuring that the play ran within equally tight timescales; even arranging the transportation of actors and scenery all were new logistical fields that were soon overcome. Since these tentative beginnings W.A.D.S. has won many awards, even reaching the semi-finals of the ‘All-England’ Festival in 1980 with the famous ‘trial’ scene from Terence Rattigan’s ‘The Winslow Boy.’ At another festival in Castle Bromwich near Birmingham, two plays were entered – Noel Coward’s ‘Come into the Garden Maud’ and David Edgar’s ‘Ball Boys’. The plays were jointly awarded first place, and their differing styles showed how versatile the Society had now become in its acting and staging.
Another venture was undertaken in 1971. Since the 1920’s the Wolverhampton Drama Federation had been running drama competitions in the surrounding area, and it was decided that W.A.D.S. should take part. The festival was an annual undertaking – a drama adjudicator would visit a single performance of all the full-length plays by each of the member Societies across a twelve-month period. An awards ceremony was held during the summer, and since that time W.A.D.S. succeeded in winning a trophy of some kind in every season except one. The winning trophy for Best Overall production, was sponsored by the ‘Express and Star.’ Unfortunately the Federation no longer exists, for it was undoubtedly a spur to quality and interest in dram in this locality.
2017 proved another turning point in the Society’s history. Having been resident at Stream Road since 1967, a change in direction at the Church meant that it became too difficult to continue using their facilities. A search for a new home resulted in a move to the theatre at Crestwood School in Bromley Lane, where the first production of 2018, “Darker Shores” by Michael Punter was performed in February.
WADS today only exists because of theses solid foundations. We are grateful to everyone who has visited our productions throughout our history, for without you and your support W.A.D.S. would have no reason to be. Anyone who has been a member in whatever capacity and for however long, has played a part in its longevity and success. Like every organisation we must always look to the future, and hope that there will always be those who will come through our doors to perform, build, and witness our work, who will keep this Society on stage where it belongs, hopefully entertaining audiences for many years to come.