Smell the greasepaint: an am-dram diary

Amateur dramatics are one of the glues holding communities together.

Steven Russell

Amateur dramatics are one of the glues holding communities together. With opening night looming, Steven Russell asked The Friston Aldeburgh Players how they've turned dream into reality

NOT so long ago, The Friston Aldeburgh Players were a bit like a sinking ship and going nowhere fast but down. In a few days, however, following an injection of oomph and some reinvention, they present The Dresser - Ronald Harwood's play within a play.

“When I first came across The Players they were putting on Henry V in Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall,” remembers producer/director Anthony Preston. “Must have been 2004. They were called The Friston Players then.”


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The amateur company was formed in the village near Saxmundham, Leiston and Snape, and four or five years ago was at least 30 strong.

“Henry The Fifth was staged with the assistance of a small, professional theatre company called Tour de Force. I was impressed. There's no doubt both the playing of main characters by professionals and instruction given by them to the amateurs paid dividends. It was a good time . . .

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“As if in recognition of our ascendance, moribund Aldeburgh Players offered the town's name. The Friston Players became The Friston Aldeburgh Players.

“Was the moribund catching? After a series of well-received comedies ranging from Sheridan's School for Scandal to the spoof by Tim Kelly, It Was A Dark and Stormy Night, a kind of apathy set in. This despite the enthusiasm with which the latter was received.”

Numbers dwindled. By last summer the company was down to six stalwarts, “none in the first flush of youth. Where were the young, the adventurous, the aspiring actors and actresses?” Could a lingering death be averted?

Here, in diary form penned by several of the cast, is what happened next . . .

Sunday, September 28, 2008 - producer/director Anthony Preston: Looking back on miserable summer for flying, got to thinking what might brighten prospect of winter. Such a shame about FAP. Bit like a sinking ship. Had lot of fun with roles in last three or four productions, specially It Was a Dark and Stormy Night. Pity about shoulder pain suffered all these months later as result of crooked arm to match twisted character.

From 30 active thespians down to half-dozen or so. If not careful FAP demise. Maybe I should try and direct. Wonder what's involved. Surely just project manager-type thing? I'll act as conduit rather than dictator! Moot it at next meeting.

Get onto Ipswich library and try out some plays. Read them at Hugo's. [Hugo Herbert-Jones, who's playing Kent.] Think about something different. Break from FAP tradition of thrillers and farces. Certainly not trying a musical. To revive FAP fortunes we need a really good play. Some jewel in a forgotten crown.

Danger of my being bit like what most members of volunteer committees are. Taking on job for which qualification is nothing more than volunteering to do it. Recipe for megalomania at one extreme and total ineptitude at t'other. Will they listen to me, the survivors? They know so much more than I do about theatre. One good thing is that survivors are the cream. If we find right play, it'll be bloody good.

October - Michael Creese: Talk in the drama group of doing The Dresser, with me playing “Sir”. It would be a real challenge and certainly make a change from the military men I often play. Quite a lot of lines to learn, though, and a complex character to portray.

Same month - Derek Johnson: After another read through accepted the role of Norman. Excellent part but very long; is the memory up to it? Make a decision - must know the first act by Christmas.

Sunday, December 14 - Anthony Preston: Late March seemed like long way off when we chose The Dresser. What happened to those two months? It was Derek who suggested Harwood's play after they'd all, patiently, gone along with my wild and generally absurd choices. And it turns out to be made for us. Simple set. We need that as usual carpenter is unable to do it and I haven't a clue who will. That's how it's generally been with everything except for acting the parts. Can't get carpenter - I'll do it. What about props? I'll do it. And costumes? Aiee! I suppose that's why I changed my title from director (misnomer) to producer/director (misnomers).

[The play takes place during a performance of King Lear. It is 1942, in a provincial English town suffering regular enemy air raids and from the privations imposed by war.]

Three main parts, tho' two are huge, so small cast and some doubling. Casting has been curate's egg. Three main actors are gift from heaven. But can I get an Irene? Can I hell! Lovely girl agrees on phone to audition. Just right vivacity. In my mind's eye: perfect. Alas, for part of Irene she has to be lighter than Her Ladyship playing Cordelia. It's the whole point. Cordelia shrinks to Twiggy beside her.

Sunday, December 21 - Sheena Griffiths (Her Ladyship): This thespian thing does get to you. Funny to think last week I was appearing in Saxmundham with the Fromus Players. This week I'm straight into another part. Thoroughly enjoyed playing the doctor's frustrated wife, Mrs Wicksteed, in Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus. Mrs Wicksteed is a larger-than-life lady on the lookout for excitement. Quite a raunchy play for Sax audience but they clearly enjoyed it and we, the players, certainly had a good giggle. It'll be a big change for me playing Her Ladyship to the larger-than-life Sir in The Dresser. What a change of pace, subject, tone and character. I'm looking forward to it.

January - Michael Creese (Sir): Working hard learning my lines. Derek is away and I know he will be practically word perfect by the time he returns, so there's a bit of a competition! Doing my usual triangular walk around our lanes, I can get through Act I. I have less to say in Act II so can manage that as I walk down to get the paper in the morning, unless I meet a friend and stop for a chat!

Same month - Derek Johnson (Norman): On board m.s. Balmoral cruise to the Canaries. Intention - relax and learn the second act. Act One reasonably secure; just a few wobbles. Getting to know Norman better as the days pass.

Tuesday, January 27 - Sheena Griffiths (Her Ladyship): The two leading men are virtually word-perfect, showing up the rest of the cast. Off to Antigua for a week where I'll sit in the sun - and learn my lines. Not like Judy Dench, who apparently told Anthony that, when she has lines to learn, she sets herself a target, runs a hot bath, doesn't allow herself to get out until lines learned, never touches hot tap!

I borrowed a DVD of the film with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in the lead parts, thinking I'd pick up some tips on playing Her Ladyship, only to find my part was almost entirely cut out! The director obviously thought the part unnecessary - not a thought to boost my confidence.

February - Michael Creese (Sir): The beginning of Act II is very complex, with a variety of sound effects and action taking place on the stage and in the wings. I am finding difficulty in producing the “Shakespearian actor's voice” for when Sir is on stage playing Lear.

Tuesday, March 3 - Sheena Griffiths (Her Ladyship): Rehearsals are coming on well, with everyone “off-book”. I'm looking forward to trying on costumes. I will have two wigs - one for when I'm playing Cordelia and one with, I hope, a victory roll. I didn't know what a victory roll was. May have thought it was some kind of cylindrical cake or a Spitfire celebrating. Turns out you can see what it looks like if you watch Foyle's War on TV.

I must practise with the victory roll wig or I can see I'll be on stage on the first night taking off not only my hat in the first scene but the wig as well!

Friday, March 6 - Anthony Preston: Unreal visit to Jim Laws, Mr Lighting, near Beccles. Props search. Among hordes of massive spotlights and other lighting bric-a-brac, from floor to ceiling, Jim ferrets out ancient wind-machine, rain noisemaker, tin helmet, gas-mask, conical fire extinguisher, etc. But no thunder. Massive aluminium sheet identified as suitable material. With classic obsession for detail, typical of true collectors, he goes straight to one of 20,000 identical Bisley drawers and pulls out two bushes with the aid of which I, Producer, shall raise thunder.

Interesting, as we get nearer the day when pleading for prompt is inadmissible, how my pleas to actors, upon very occasional lapses, to avoid - like Gordon Brown - the “Sorry” are still ineffective. Major detriment to am dram performances is audience fear of memory lapse. The earlier in rehearsal actors learn to fluff it through the better. The further into the play without the “Sorry” or departure from character, the more the audience will relax and begin to enjoy.

We do have on our side the fact that it is an extraordinarily good play, well written, heartfelt, moving and amusing.

March - Michael Creese (Sir): Not long to go now! I have to practise making up, putting on a beard and wig and getting into costume all on stage. Hope the beard doesn't come unstuck at the wrong moment. Still needing the occasional prompt. Hopefully it will be alright on the night!

March - Derek Johnson (Norman): Two weeks to go. Only the odd prompt. Can be distracted if a door opens or someone coughs. Must hold concentration. Powerful last scene. Praying for stamina!

Let's give the last word to Anthony Preston. “Acting, play-reading, rehearsing offer both challenges and rewards far beyond the reach of humdrum daily toil. The Friston Aldeburgh Players seek new blood. Our next production might even be Dracula. Come and join us. You'll not regret it.”

There will be three performances: on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 26-28, each starting at 7.30 pm. Tickets �8, with reserved seating. They're available from Aldeburgh Music Box Office, High Street, Aldeburgh (01728 687110).

Meet our diarists . . .

Sheena Griffiths (Her Ladyship): A retired teacher who moved to Aldeburgh in 1999. Sheena started appearing on stage in Bolton, Lancashire, at the age of eight (elocution lessons having turned to drama lessons).

Derek Johnson (Norman): A retired Anglican priest who has been ordained for 40 years. Almost 22 years was spent as chaplain in a hospital in Wolverhampton.

Michael Creese (Sir): A retired headmaster/educational consultant. Made his first stage appearance while at school and acted and directed while a student at university.

Anthony Preston (producer/director): Worked as an engineer. Previously played an unpleasant Ebenezer Saltmarsh for The Friston Aldeburgh Players. As penance he agreed, this year, to have a go at directing.

The play . . .

THE Dresser is a drama that takes place behind the scenes during a production of King Lear. The play by Ronald Harwood is based on the character of Sir Donald Wolfit. Harwood was his dresser for nearly five years.

Anthony Preston says: “Sir's madness is driven on by ambition, conceit and exhaustion; Lear's through betrayal and the realisation of his own folly and weakness. Both Lear and Sir try to summon the brute force of the storm to overcome their inadequacies and express their rage. Both struggle against the indignity of old age.”

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