The Old Stagers are the oldest surviving amateur dramatics society in Britain. Older than The Wimbledon Championships and as English as the sound of leather smacking willow; their inception came about in true British form, from a remarkably well attended game of cricket.
In 1841 a “return” match between Kent and England was played at the Beverley Ground in Canterbury where the stakes were rumoured to be 500 guineas aside; encouraging 5000 spectators to descend on this quiet little market town situated in the countryside of East Kent. The outstanding turn out of visitors gave the Honourable secretary of the club, John Baker, and his brother W de Chair, the idea to create the annual August festival of Canterbury Cricket week which would host a series of home matches from Kent County Cricket Club in the day and theatrical performances at the Orange Street Theatre in the evening.
Baker took the idea to fellow cricket player and keen thespian the Honourable Frederick Ponsonby (later to become the Earl of Bessborough) believing it would appeal to his “love of the drama and histrionic prowess as an amateur,” (Elliot, 1898. p81.) It certainly did and he had soon rallied around him a group of amateur actors who took to playing cricket with fervour during the day, and rehearsing any spare moment they could find on a free corner of the playing field, for their performance in the evening.
The company’s first outing included productions of The Rivals and The Tragedy of Othello with the rules for membership revised at The Fountainhead hotel in 1850 and the name Old Stagers confirmed a full decade after their first performance, in 1852.
Created in the fifth year of the reign of Queen Victoria, the era heralded a blossoming of amateur dramatics. However this highly conservative time also provided problems for a mixed sex troupe of players required to express the full gamut of human emotion including sexual desire.
One solution was to take a well known play and turn it into a burlesque. Perhaps this explains the success of another time honoured Old Stager tradition still alive today. A topical musical review known as The Epilogue closes the end of each season’s performance on the Friday and Saturday night. This satirical song and dance sketch show is written anew during the week of the performance each year and lampoons the popular news stories and public figures of the time.
Along with Frederick Ponsonby (the Earl of Bessborough) and his brother Spencer, other notable players who trod the boards with the Old Stagers in the 19th Century included Palgrave Simpson, a popular playwright of sentimental Victorian dramas and Tom Taylor, a former editor of Punch magazine.
Several seasoned lady performers were also invited into this beery, back slapping world of old boys clubs and cricket. Many of these professional actresses joined the company from as early as 1843 and were famous performers and burlesque artists of the day.
Rose Leclercq joined the troupe with her sister and later became famous for creating the Lady Bracknell character in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest;” Louisa Ruth Herbert performed with the Old Stagers in 1858 and was to become better known as a model for the artist Dante Rosetti.
Lydia Thompson took several turns with the Old Stagers and was a notoriously successful burlesque performer of the day. When she took her cast of “British Blondes” to New York with a production of “Ixion" her publicist went into overdrive promoting the show in advance, by suggesting that the frenzied sexually charismatic effect that Thompson had on her hordes of adoring male fans led to challenges to duels and even dramatic suicides. It obviously worked as the show made an extraordinary $46,000 on its opening week.
Now in their their 163rd season, the Old Stagers can still be seen annually at their newer home of The Gulbenkian Theatre in Canterbury. Their performances remain uninterrupted with the exception of the first and second world wars and lends credence to their claim that they are in fact, the oldest amateur dramatics society in Britain and the world.
Poignantly, their most recent performance marks the 100 year anniversary of the first and only time a production, the show ‘Priscilla Runs Away’ by Elizabeth Arnim, had to be cancelled on its opening night of August 3rd. War was declared a day later on August 4th 1914.
Still, there is something heart warming about the continuation of these twinned and time honoured traditions of the Old Stagers and Canterbury Cricket Week in an ever turbulent world. A sentiment echoed by the journalist and former cabinet minister William Deedes who said:
Around this time of year, while the Second World War was on, I consoled myself by thinking that Canterbury Cricket Week, founded in 1842 with its tents and famous lime tree, unchanging in a changing world, was the sort of thing I was in business to preserve.
How reassuring it is to note that if one were to pay a visit to Canterbury Cricket festival week these days; in amongst the gentleman supping ale, the flurry of feathers for Ladies Day and the strains of the brass band; if one listens carefully enough one may still be able catch the sound of an Old Stager or two warming up in a quiet corner of a tent for the evening’s performance.
Allen, R.C. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. University of North Carolina Press. 1991.
Collins, P. Among the Fans: From the Ashes to the Arrows, A Year of Watching Watchers. London:
Deedes, W (1999) Daily Telegraph. August.
Dobson, M. Shakespeare and Amateur Performance: A Cultural History. Cambridge. Cambridge History Press. 2011.
Elliot, W.G. Amateur Clubs and Actors. London: Edward Arnold. 1898.
© 2014 Dominique Didinal. All rights reserved.
Dominique Didinal is a former actress and freelance writer based in London and you can view more of her work at dominiquedidinal.com.