The aftermath of the Second World War saw a huge increase in amateur drama across the country. As a result, on 18th April 1948, 14 like-minded people met with an idea; they were going to form a new amateur dramatic group. From here, the seeds were sown, with our founder members deciding upon the (very imaginative) name “The New Theatre Group”.
To broaden and improve their skills, our founder members decided producing several productions a year was the way to go. However, lack of a permanent base meant touring around the local area. The very first play – A Hundred Years Old by Serafin and Joaquin Quintero – was performed 9 times across 6 different venues in 1948.
Despite flitting back and forth across the county, our founder members continued to cut their teeth and, in 1950, won the Kent Drama Festival with The Playgoers by Pinero. They returned to defend their title in 1951, and won again with George Bernard Shaw’s The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet. The latter was also entered into the London Festival at Toynbee Hall where the three best productions got the chance to perform in front of an industry professional. Our founder members were granted this opportunity. West End Director, Roy Rich, declared that, in The New Theatre Group’s production, “the distinction between professional and amateur ceased to exist”.
As our founder members continued to produce multiple productions, struggling with large tours and lean budgets, they were constantly on the lookout for a permanent base to make their own. In 1951, Beech Walk in Crayford came to their rescue – with a hut in the middle of a cabbage patch, surrounded by allotments. Though not the most glamourous setting, this did not deter our founder members. A seven-year lease was negotiated and they moved in. The bomb damage they found inside, courtesy of the Blitz, may have thrown a spanner in the works – but, ever optimistic, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Pooling all of their DIY skills together, electricity was installed, a stage was built and seats were fitted. “The Hut” had become a theatre.
The grand premiere at The Hut was The Devil’s Disciple by George Bernard Shaw in November 1952. Roy Rich graciously performed an opening ceremony to mark the occasion.
On 2nd October 1952 a plaque was unveiled at Crayford Town Hall to the memory of Geoffrey Whitworth. He had visited Crayford in 1918 to watch members of the Workers’ Educational Association perform readings of Phipps and Fancy Free by Stanley Houghton. Whitworth was passionate about amateur theatre and went on to form The British Drama League (later known as The British Theatre Association). This organisation was founded to promote both amateur and professional theatre in England, and its work included pursuing the creation of the National Theatre and encouraging the introduction of drama into the national curriculum.
At the unveiling of the plaque, our founder members spoke to Whitworth’s widow. During that conversation, she asked if they would consider taking the name of her late husband for their group. Greatly honoured, our founder members were proud to represent the man who had done so much for amateur theatre.
The seven-year lease was up and our founder members had to decide; either they renewed the lease and stuck with The Hut, which was growing more ramshackle by the day. Or, they took a leap, went for progress and refused to be held back by their practically non-existent budget. Of course, they chose the bold course. Loans and luck would get them through.
A price for the freehold of The Hut was agreed and our founder members set about designing the new theatre. Then, in the summer of 1957, work began. Builders laid the foundations and bricked the outside walls; the rest was left to the amateurs.
Dusting off their DIY skills and, with some help from their friends, our founder members put on the roof, laid drains, installed toilets, and conquered gas-fitting, wiring and internal cladding. The Council approved, and they were good to go.
As construction continued, the last show in The Hut went ahead. The final curtain fell and, with some sadness, The Hut was gutted and demolished.
After 18 months of hard work, the purpose-built Geoffrey Whitworth Theatre opened its doors in October 1959. Dame Sybil Thorndyke, accompanied by her husband Sir Lewis Casson and friend Donald Pleasance, performed the opening ceremony. The first production The Beaux Stratagem by George Farquhar went up a week later and the theatre was brought to life.
This information has been taken from Fifty Dramatic Years (1998), written by one of our much missed founder members John Measures.
Over seventy years on and, thanks to the continual efforts of our dedicated volunteers, both on and offstage, we continue to go from strength to strength. Our theatre family has grown with hundreds of wonderful members over the years, including a very young Sir Michael Gambon in the 1960s, who now stands as our president. Thanks to those 14 people who met one afternoon in 1948, hundreds of us can now enjoy the excitement, passion, determination and, most importantly, the happiness that is built firmly into our theatre’s walls.