Lowestoft Players 50th Anniversary: The Theatres of the Players
- Credit: Mick Howes
From 1969 to 1988, the Sparrows Nest was the theatre of choice for Players' pantos, musicals and most of their plays.
The Nest was, however, a rather challenging venue, to put it mildly.
It was only ever designed to be a summer pavilion, something that certainly didn't help during winter.
In his Lowestoft Journal review of Sleeping Beauty in January 1972, Tony Mallion wrote: 'By the end of the show I had come to the conclusion that Reg Blowers, playing the Queen, was rubbing his hands together to keep warm rather than to add conviction to the part.'
Its leaky roof was a problem too, and the 1979 production of My Fair Lady was brought to a halt by pouring rain. By the mid 80s, rain-buckets lining the stage were a frequent occurrence.
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The Nest also lacked capability as a theatre, with its poor acoustics, no scenery dock, no foyer and no large orchestra pit.
As former Players director Mervyn Braddick recalls, the lights system was very basic as well: 'There was an old Strand board that you operated using several hands and arms - and legs sometimes - to actually get the lights to work. It was very limited in what it did, a huge beast that took up a wall.'
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Despite the drawbacks, the Players came to love the Nest and it was a theatre in which they produced some masterful shows. They began to develop their own artistic methods of lighting the set; their staging of 'Showboat' in 1975 was the first to use a full-sized set of scenery from the small Players Theatre Workshop; they staged their first operetta, 'The Merry Widow', in 1978, featuring their first use of male dancers and some opera-quality stars.
The Players' stagecraft had risen and evolved in order to combat the limitations of the theatre and it's no wonder their fondness for the Nest went from strength to strength.
But regardless of the affection and accomplishment, the time had come for the council to seek somewhere else as the main town theatre.
In fact, Tony Mallion had hit the nail on the head in his 1972 review when he suggested that the ABC Marina would be a much better home.
Although the once-grand Victorian theatre was by that time a decaying cinema in need of considerable and costly refurbishment, it boasted a full stage, fly tower, dressing rooms and, of supreme importance, central heating.
Having had its acoustics assessed, the Marina charge was soon being led by the Players.
Naturally, the debate came down to a matter of money. For a cost of £631,000, the Marina could be retained as a fresh, central town theatre and the Nest would go. Alternatively, for £436,000, the Nest could have a facelift and the Marina left unattended.
In the vital town hall debate on April 10, 1985, it was resolved by 24 votes to 18 that the Marina Theatre would be 'purchased at a price to be negotiated by the council's chief valuer with a view to its full repair, refurbishment and use as a theatre and cinema' (Lowestoft Journal, 1985).
Fearing an unfavourable result, the latter stages of the debate went unheard by the Players delegation who, according to then-chairman Roy Randall, 'headed for The Falcon pub to await the inevitable.'
Three years later, the newly refurbished Marina was opened and a glittering Gala Season of 17 concerts began in celebration. By 1991, the old Sparrow's Nest was little more than a pile of planks.
The Players' progress continued at the Marina, with achievements including the huge set for 'Sweeney Todd' in 1990 and the modernisation of the panto programme to bring in brand new Disney titles.
The final phase of the tale ends at the company's current performance base, the Players Theatre.
Their 2009 purchase of the Fisherman's Bethel and its subsequent transformation gave them a new stage to work on and some brand new challenges, many of course to do with scale.
By 2014, the infrastructure has developed sufficiently to allow the production of the Bethel's first musical, 'Aspects of Love', developed by Stephen Wilson. The Players managed to condense the show's grandeur to fit the small venue and, with technically ingenious productions such as Grease in 2015, began to master the possibilities of their new theatre.
• Read about the company's 'Masterpieces, Milestones and Moments' in next week's third and final instalment of the history of the Lowestoft Players.