Woodbridge AmDram legend Don Spall dies after Parkinson’s battle
- Credit: COMPANY OF FOUR
Heartfelt tributes have been paid to “the entertainment man of Woodbridge” who helped found a thriving amateur dramatics group over four decades ago.
Don Spall, who co-founded the Company of Four theatre group, sadly passed away aged 79 on September 20 following a 10-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Together with fellow youth club members Harry Reeve, John Morris and Michael Warden, Don founded the theatre group in 1972 and had been at the heart of the company ever since.
A vibrant and popular member of the community, he was also made an Honorary Freeman of Woodbridge in 2001 for his services to the town.
Paul Leech, the current chairman of the Company of Four, met Don over three decades ago when he first took to the stage in his teens.
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He said Don was a fantastic producer and director, who took a community-centric approach to his role and cared a great deal about the quality of his productions.
“Out of our four founding members, he was the one who stayed at the helm,” he said. “He continued to take it from strength to strength. He produced – I couldn’t guess how many – hundreds and hundreds of shows for the company.
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“He just understood what a Woodbridge audience wanted to see. For most members of the company he was just seen as the entertainment man of Woodbridge.”
He added: “Don was very upfront and would tell you what he thought. Although he was a really, really nice man, at times he wouldn’t pull his punches.
“His vision was always very high spec. He was very critical of himself – unnecessarily so. He always had the Company of Four and the production at the time at the core of everything.”
Don’s son, Jonathan, described his father as a “genuinely lovely man” – selfless, influential, determined and popular – who was “driven by his love for the town”.
“I don’t think any event would have happened in Woodbridge without my dad being involved in some way,” he said.
“He loved Woodbridge. I think he only left the country once in his life.”
Never short of enthusiasm for the theatre, Don helped refurbish the old Woodbridge cinema – now known as The Riverside Theatre, on a number of occasions.
“He was very passionate about the building itself,” Jonathan said. “He single-handedly painted the whole thing himself three times.
“He then built hundreds of rooms – he and his friends hand built the stage. By hook by crook he would get something done.”
He stressed that Don, a lifelong bus driver, was always active in the community – and his influence spread far beyond the theatre.
One of his most popular projects was the Cine-Disc Club, an afternoon disco/cinema fusion for children, where young people could bust a move before settling down to a film screening.
“He was always the man behind the scenes,” Jonathan said. “He always said he did it for the children.”
Having touched so many lives setting up the Company of Four, running the Cine-Disco and even serving on the town council for a spell, Don would often be stopped in the street for a chat – making it very difficult to get anywhere on time.
“He couldn’t walk through the town without bumping into about 30 people,” he said. “It would be tough to go anywhere – even if I went on a trip to London.
“He was very popular – he went above and beyond. We are lucky to have known him.”
Mr Leech said that Don was a confident and sociable man, particularly keen to keep the community spirit alive and encourage the younger generation to try their hand under the spotlight.
“His aim was always to make the Company of Four a very family-oriented company,” he said. “The company would have an annual trip every summer up to Thorpeness and have a barbeque on the beach.
“He was very much orientated towards getting younger people into the company. Our pantomimes when Don produced them probably had an average cast of between 65 and 70 people. It was because we had a large amount of kids and younger people involved.”
He added that Don was extremely proud to be named Honorary Freeman of Woodbridge in 2001.
“As Honorary Freeman he had a badge of office,” Mr Leech said. “He was very proud of that, and that had pride of place in his front room that he used as an office.”
After many years as chairman, Don stepped back from his role when his health started to deteriorate around 2010. However his involvement with Company of Four was far from over – as the group presented him with the coveted title of life president.
When Mr Leech broke the news of Don’s death to the company on Thursday night, he said it was met with “an outpouring of emotion”.
“We were having some auditions for our next show,” he said. “At the end of the auditions I made the announcement.
“There was certainly an outpouring of emotion. That night I sent an email out to tell members and the replies that I had back said that he certainly will be very, very missed.
“The tributes that have been on Facebook from current members and members of old have been very touching, saying that he will be missed and he was a really great man that people admired.”
In a statement published on their website, the Company of Four wrote: “We were very sad to hear the news that our beloved Don Spall, life president and one of the founder members of the Company of Four passed away.
“It is no exaggeration to say that for the biggest part of his life, he was Mr Company of Four, leading the society from strength to strength, both in the roles of producer and director.
“Don created so many great pantomimes, musicals and his forte was most definitely – song and dance shows. His vision, his skills and knowledge at being able to construct a fabulous song and dance show, starting with just a blank piece of paper was simply incredible and second to none.
“We all have so many fond memories of Don, from using his beloved cassette tapes at rehearsals to finding long forgotten tunes on his old 78’s and turning them into quite simply show-stopping routines.
“The Company of Four has always been and always will be one big family. We have a lot to thank him for and he will be forever missed. Don you gave your love and dedication to not only to the company but also to its members and for that ‘we thank you very much’. We send our Love and Best Wishes to Lyn, Helen, Amy, Katy, Jonny, Kayleigh and his extended family at this very sad time.”
Don’s family have made both his funeral and wake public, so all those who knew him can feel free to pay their respects.
Jonathan said: “We are deliberately making the funeral open to everybody. There is also going to be a public open wake at the Woodbridge cinema.
“He was our father, but he doesn’t just belong to us.”
The funeral will take place at St John’s Church in Woodbridge from 10.30am on Monday, October 15. It will be followed by a wake held from 12pm at The Riverside Theatre, where Don spent so many happy times. All are welcome.