By Joan Collins
In the summer of 1994 Stephen Henderson, my husband Peter and I were at the memorial service in London of a delightful man, late of Cuckfield, named Philip Thomson-Walker, MBE and a war hero.
Cuckfield Parish Council had just taken over the running of the Queen’s Hall and Stephen was on the Committee. He knew that I had a long association with amateur dramatics and asked me on the above occasion if I would re-start the Cuckfield Dramatic Society using the Queen’s Hall for productions – the parish council being anxious for the hall to be used by Cuckfield societies.
There had been a Cuckfield Dramatic Society some thirty years earlier. Robin and Angela Fox, parents and grandparents of the well-known acting dynasty, and Basil Boothroyd, a deputy editor of Punch at that time, were members. Steuart and Ann Went kept some photographs of the original Society, a selection of which can be seen at the Cuckfield Museum. Although Steuart is unfortunately no longer with us, Ann still lives in Cuckfield. By all accounts it was a thriving society with plays in the Queen’s Hall, in addition to well attended club nights at the home of Dr and Mrs Miller in Brook Street. That I incarnation of the society closed in the 1960’s as people aged or moved away.
When Stephen asked me to form a society again, I said that I would be delighted to see if there was any interest and would advertise in the local press as well as holding a meeting in the Queen’s Hall. However at that time I was organizing and directing “A Man for all Seasons” in the now defunct Professional Players Theatre in Haywards Heath and thus I could not be further involved initially with CDS. That play was being produced under the “umbrella” of the Mid Sussex Players Association – a group of a dozen or more clubs in Mid Sussex. It included one or two actors who subsequently performed for CDS.
The new CDS had an enthusiastic meeting later in 1994 following which I asked Angela Fox to be our first president. John McKenzie was our first Chairman with the first committee meeting being held in Angela’s house in Ockenden Lane – and the new CDS was on its way!
Colin Tremblett Wood, a retired Head of English at Ardingly College, agreed to direct our first play in the spring of 1995. He chose Confusions by Alan Ayckbourn. I think that the production involved – in some capacity – everyone who was a member!
We were a group to some extent made up initially of strangers and therefore limited in our knowledge of the talent – or otherwise – of the members and of the Queen’s Hall in regard to putting on a play. Confusions also had numerous set changes which required back stage and teamwork together with front of house. We must have been mad, but as they say, “Ignorance is Bliss”. What we did have in abundance was enthusiasm and that was, and is, the magic ingredient. The play was a great success and as our reputation grew members from other dramatic societies joined us from time to time. We have won various awards both “on stage & backstage”.
Another new member was Maggie Williams who succeeded Colin as Head of English at Ardingly College and then worked at The Globe in London writing the programme notes for the productions there. In her later years she and her husband David brought their vast experience to CDS.
When we produced Murder in Play by Simon Brett, we were honoured by his attendance at the Saturday night performance. He stayed for at least an hour at the end, talking to members of the cast and company.
Some years ago our standards slipped, as eventually happens with most societies. Martin and Harriet Sheldon with others worked hard to keep CDS functioning and more recently Paul Davey took us into the computer age. At the moment we are back riding on the crest of a wave again, with the considerable help of enthusiastic new blood and fresh ideas.
Nowadays besides our spring and autumn play we have club nights or social evenings, the annual February Frolics (a one act play, and sketches with a meal) and for the last three years we have held our Christmas Cabaret when the Queen’s Hall is magnificently decorated according to the theme of the evening. From time to time we have workshops, while we even have a mini touring company! We have been invited to perform our plays and murder mysteries on other local stages together with fund raising performances for local charities such as the Rotarians. One rather different venue was when we produced Racing Demon in Holy Trinity Church, Cuckfield in 2014.
Richard Willis a professional writer who lives in Cuckfield, and together with another member Paul Ruse wrote the comedy “Bridge to Farce” for us. It began at the February Frolics as a single act before being extended to a full length play as our spring show in 2017. After a great reception we “toured with it” to Hurstpierpoint in the summer and this year Paul and Richard are putting it on at The Capitol in Horsham in August, with many CDS members in the cast.
I think Philip and Betty Thomson Walker who were keen theatre goers would have been delighted to think they had a part in the re-birth of such a successful society with well over 40 plays let alone other entertainments produced over the last 23 years.
A few years ago under the chairmanship of Dr Richard Wiseman our dream of our own Theatre seemed to be possible, unfortunately there were too many complications for it to happen, but we hope this dream can be resurrected in the future.
We have an impressive C.V. from
- Ayckbourn to Moliere
- Priestley to Neil Simon
- Ibsen to Bennett
- Simon Gray to Michael Palin
- Miller to du Maurier
- Stoppard to Wilde
- Peter Shaffer to Goldsmith
- David Hare to Chekhov
We are a friendly club. Please join us either as a member of the audience or as a full member. We are always looking for new skills in any branch of the theatre or just someone to join in with the fun. Please have a look at our website and make yourself known to us. We look forward to meeting you.
Cuckfield Dramatic Society, April 2018
- See the full list of past shows since 1994 here