Lowestoft Players 50th Anniversary: The ‘Homes’ of the Players
- Credit: Archant
Having risen from the ashes of the old Lowestoft Operatic and Dramatic Society in 1967, during their earliest days the Lowestoft Players were without a permanent home and rehearsed at Roman Hill Infants School.
Karen Carter, today one of the stalwarts of the company, was 15 when she first tried out for 'Babes in the Woods' in 1970-71 and vividly recalls the scary 'open audition process' in the school hall. Whilst principals rehearsed in the corridor outside, 'everybody sat in the rows of seats and they called out your name and the part you were trying out for. You stood by the piano and performed, earning sniggers if you were poor but maybe a raised eyebrow if you were good.'
Furthermore, with no workshop space, costumes and sets had to be collected from suppliers and the company didn't quite know what they were getting until Jack Overy's lorry returned laden with baskets of costumes and huge flats of scenery.
The situation changed when the large space of St John's Church Hall was pressed into service for props storage after the Players bought stock from scenic artists 'Capes of Chiswick' when they folded in the early '70s.
Attempts were then made for the Players to start building their own sets and St John's was the obvious place to do this.
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Set construction took a major step forward when Stephen Wilson joined in 1973-4, notably when it came to the impressive full-sized set for 'Showboat' in 1975, which involved pioneers such as Lynn Roots, Mervyn Braddick and Arthur Adams taking on more and more set-building and painting. The 'Cotton Blossom' boat herself was built on a grand scale and, with no van, bundles of second-hand timber that were required had to be walked from Cleveland's Yard on Norwich Road to St John's.
As the company grew ambitious, there were steep learning curves round every corner. They would do well to make it to the Sparrow's Nest, their perennial performance venue, without the carefully constructed sets having lost much of their paint and glitter during transportation in an open, windswept lorry.
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The biggest problem, though, was lurking deep in the stonework of St John's hall. Two North Sea floods in 1897 and 1953 had eaten away at the stone fabric to such an extent that the building's demolition in 1977 was a foregone conclusion. The Players were left without a home.
But it was in the same year that one of life's happy coincidences came to the rescue.
Every day, two marine engineers - Albert Catchpole, who ran Eastern Hardware Co Ltd, and Jack Overy, who worked for LBS Engineering - met for coffee at the Comfy Cafe next to the fish dock.
We may speculate that Mr Overy, Players chairman and founding member, would have mentioned the society's homelessness and wondered whether Mr Catchpole had any suggestions. As it happened, the decline in the herring fishing industry had made his family's net store on Stradbroke Road surplus to requirements.
The upshot was that the Players moved in, courtesy of the Catchpoles, and began using the premises as their rehearsal hall, workshop, costume store and the home where they bonded and developed their strong social cohesion.
On April 23 1977, the building was officially opened by the National Operatic and Dramatic Association as the first proper headquarters of the Lowestoft Players.
The Players were to remain on Stradbroke Road for the next 32 years, entirely free of charge other than upkeep costs.
It was in large part this generous provision by Albert and Hilda Catchpole that allowed the Players to save for and purchase their second home in 2008-09 when the Fishermen's Bethel in Battery Green came up for sale.
The Company's second home was not only superior in size , but also potential. In the ensuing years, the Players worked tirelessly to secure funding from various sources and put in the hard graft to transform the Bethel into a properly-functioning theatre.
On October 12 2015, the base was officially listed in the British Theatre Directory as 'The Players Theatre'.