A Short History of Wallington Operatic and Dramatic Society

(formerly Beddington, Carshalton and Wallington Operatic Society)

 

The Society was founded in 1903 by Mr and Mrs Lister Guest and our first production, The Pirates of Penzance, was in April 1904 at Carshalton Public Hall, which stood on the present site of the Charles Cryer Studio Theatre.  A number of guarantors for £5 each backed this, but it and the succeeding productions were so successful that they never had to pay up! 

In the early years we had tremendous support from local residents; there was no television or cinema and few had radios.  The new Gilbert & Sullivan operettas were particularly popular.  By the mid-twenties we had hundreds of honorary members, and on the first day of ticket sales there would be long queues outside the music shop in Wallington High Street.

By 1935 the Society had distributed some £550 (the cost of a pleasant three-bedroomed house in the locality) among charitable organisations, which were mainly local.  The production of The Pirates of Penzance was staged specifically to raise money for St. Michael and All Angels Church.  St.Patrick's Church, Wallington Congregational (now United Reformed) Church and The Church of the Good Shepherd all benefited, as well as Carshalton War Memorial Hospital.

The involvement of the Guest family in the Society's first 50 years may well be unrivalled in amateur theatre.  Mrs Guest, who also acted under her maiden name of Gertrude (not Dolly!) Gallagher, directed every one of the 72 productions in these 50 years.  This was not just an achievement in numbers, but also in the constant high quality of the productions.  Her husband was Secretary for 43 years and Treasurer for 17 years and their son, Langford, was Conductor/Musical Director for 45 years.

Between the First and Second World Wars, our Presidents were two great local benefactors, who strongly supported our Society.  Sir Samuel Barrow lived at The Grove, Carshalton and owned Carshalton Hall for a number of years.  Sir William Mallinson Bt. lived at The Grange, Beddington Park.  As a matter of interest, Tom Leonowens, real life husband of 'Anna' of The King and I, was the Far East representative for the Mallinson family company!

A highlight of our musical productions in the mid-fifties was Dear Father Come Home, based on the famous American drama The Drunkard.   This was adapted by Peter Hahlo and the music composed by David Ryall.   NODA very much welcomed this innovation; the style and gestures were used to great comic effect.  When we presented this for the second time in 1966, Robin Easther, who directed and musically directed many very successful musicals for our Society, gave it his own style of orchestration.   David became a professional actor and has played many prominent roles at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and at various venues around the world; he is also constantly seen on television. One of the leads in Dear Father Come Home, Francis (Frank) Egerton who, like David, was a very committed member of our Society, has made a very successful international career as an operatic tenor, including over thirty years as a principal at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.  Helen Clare, a successful professional singer, who played the female lead as a guest artiste, joined the Society soon afterwards and served on the committee for many years from 1972 onwards and was later President.  Helen has continued to sing in our variety shows into her eighties and has been of enormous help through her singing coaching.

Peter Hahlo has directed many great productions, one in particular was The Matchgirls, the book and lyrics of which were written by Bill Owen, fondly remembered as 'Compo' in television's 'Last of the Summer Wine'.  As they had acted together some years previously, Bill took a great interest in our production and we were delighted when he gave us the opportunity of presenting the Premiere of Viva Amigo, of which he wrote the book and lyrics in 1972.

We were fortunate to have as one of our members from 1950 Anne Burley (Banks).  Annie was loved by us all and regarded as one of the greatest all-round amateur stage performers in Surrey until her premature death in 1984.  As a director, her production of Trelawny in 1975 was particularly memorable.

Like many other societies we were deluged with opportunities to perform the great post-war musicals in the 1950s and 1960s.  In 1967 we presented Annie Get Your Gun in the round at the Fairfield Concert Hall Croydon, with Annie in the leading role.  This was a wonderful venue, our loss was only £100 and it was, we believed, the first musical to be presented in the round with audience occupying the choir seats behind the stage as well as the body of the auditorium.

In view of our founder's name, it was particularly fitting that we should present Hello Dolly with Annie as 'Dolly' as our 100th production in 1969.

Having presented two musicals annually for many years, we decided in 1977 to stage occasional plays; these have now become an annual feature.  Because of the dearth of suitable new musicals and escalating costs, since 1978 we have presented only one musical each year, and an autumn variety show, devised by the director, where the audience sit at long tables and are served with drinks and a fish and chip supper. These have proved very popular with members of the cast and aspiring directors because of the opportunities they afford, with members of the public because of the format, and with the Treasurer because they are 'money-spinners'! 

During the last 20 years we have been able to repeat some of the great musicals and to present some of those we missed the first time round.  One of the most successful artistically recently was Follies which received rave reviews from NODA and local critics, and from members of the Stephen Sondheim Society.  We have been very fortunate to have a number of very talented directors, musical directors and choreographers, nearly all of whom have been members of the Society.  Barbara E. Windsor, who joined in 1971, has not only played several leading roles and directed many musicals and variety shows, but has also been on the committee for most of the period since 1972, was President in 1988/89 and was Chairman from 1994 to 2008.

We have always been particularly fortunate in having a large and enthusiastic membership and a continual inflow of new talent of all ages.  This has not just been in performing roles, but also in committee membership, costume, backstage and front of house expertise.  Whilst no present member will match the record of the Guest family, we do have two active individuals who have been members in excess of 40 years in Helen Clare and Brian Lay.  Brian has been President since 1992, having been Chairman for the previous 30 years.  The longest connection with the Society is that of Sylvia Bryant (Hall-Taylor) who first danced in one of our shows in 1934, was our President in 1978 and directed and choreographed a number of successful musicals in the 1960s and 1970s.

Whilst these days our cabaret and charity presentations are, sadly, few, we were delighted to present A Show For Annie at the Secombe Theatre in Sutton in 1985, in memory of Annie, which raised over £2,500 for the Royal Marsden Scanner Appeal.

All of us who are involved in amateur theatricals know that it is not roses all the way, but through great enthusiasm and commitment we have always managed to cope with the crises, even when, because of sudden illness, we have had to find a replacement for a leading role during the course of a production.

No piece like this can give any indication of the enormous amount of fun and enjoyment which we have all received over the last 100 years and which we hope we have given to the many tens of thousands who have seen our performances.  Whilst we cannot match the frequent sellouts for musical presentations of our earlier years, we still find ourselves turning people away for the variety shows.  So many happy and lasting friendships have emanated from membership of WallOp and we hope that these will be renewed in our centenary celebrations in 2004.  These included a Reception at the Saturday performance of the Hot Mikado in May at the Secombe Theatre in Sutton, a Garden Party in July and a Dinner/Dance in October. 

If you are a former member, or know of former members, please do get in touch with Brian Lay at 15 Highridge Close, Epsom, Surrey KY18 5HF.