Woodbridge: Actor unites cast of friends
When former professional actress Hilary Semmens moved to sheltered housing 14 months ago, she didn’t find too many like-minded souls.
But after reigniting her own passion for performance, the 89-year-old persuaded some of her neighbours to take up acting.
Now, a small group of friends at the complex, three of whom are in their 90s and most of whom have never trodden the boards, have formed an amateur dramatics group and are delighting audiences with their performances.
Calling themselves Actors’ Corner, the new group meets twice a month to rehearse and has staged productions at Christmas and Easter – and they promise much more to come. There is even a waiting list to join.
Great-grandmother Mrs Semmens moved to Felbridge Court in Woodbridge from Weston-Super-Mare and had an immediate impact on her new neighbours, persuading Christine Simpkin, 63 and Joan Hammond, 97 and also known as AJ, to join her in staging a Christmas play.
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Soon came more fledgling thespians eager to get in on the act. The eight-strong group have 666 years between them, although their new-found acting careers are less than six months old.
Mrs Semmens began her career on stage and screen aged just 20, playing the Duchess of Malfi at Cambridge Arts Theatre. Being called up for the fire service during the war put the brakes on her professional career but she was soon back in the limelight with a travelling Shakespeare company, touring the North East’s schools, clubs and miners’ institutions.
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Following the death of her husband, the mother-of-four returned to drama college for a refresher course, applied for an equity card and landed several roles in theatre and on television, including appearances in Casualty, Teachers and Pride and Prejudice.
But she remains loyal to the Bard, saying: “Shakespeare is really my stuff”, and encourages her fellow residents to join her growing ensemble. “It’s so lovely,” she said. “Everyone works so hard and there is a lot of laughter. I very tentatively did a monologue last autumn and suggested they might like to perform in a Christmas play. By the end we had five more volunteers!
“Learning words can be difficult at our age – even for me. But it’s a question of experimenting to see what would work.”
Mrs Semmens has also started an “early memories” group which meets twice a month to share stories and life experiences. The group intends to print a booklet of each member’s memories later this year.
Beverly Head, manager of the Hanover Housing Association-run complex in Bredfield Street, said: “Hilary was poorly for a while after she arrived but quickly picked up and has become an asset to the estate.
“She has residents in their 90s, who have never done anything like this, putting on shows. The staff love it too and there’s now a waiting list to join.
“People get the impression that sheltered housing is somewhere people go to retire and wind down - but not here!”
The Actors’ Corner group performed a medley of comic verse at Felbridge Court in Woodbridge.
Apart from Hilary Semmens, there are seven other members of the group, who told how much they enjoy taking par.
Fred Duce, 98, said: “I came here in 1992 from Sheffield. It’s lovely here and I like to take part in activities.”
Joan Hammond, 97, said: “I was on stage for school plays as a kid but nothing like this - I’m not good-looking enough to be an actress!”
Joan Williams, 91, said: “I moved here in 2004 from Ipswich, where I had been a nursing sister. I like being in the group and don’t feel nervous.”
Frank Lincoln, 86, said: “I haven’t acted since a church play in 1950, but Hilary persuaded me through her sheer personality.”
Michael Keeley, 73, who dressed up as Wendigo for the performance, said: “I’ve been here for three-and-a-half years.
“I just though I’d give this a go – and I quite like it.”
David Burnside, 69, said: “I liked the idea and thought why not give it a go? But I was up two or three times with first night nerves!”
Christine Simpkin, 63, said: “It’s a lovely mixed group of different ages which seems to work very well – and it’s all because of Hilary.”