Essentially West Wickham & Hayes - Spring 2009
The style and manners of the shows themselves, all-American products of the all-American dream. The costumes. The breath-taking choreography. Then something happened. The Brits caught up. Our own National Theatre, first with Guys and Dolls, then Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady, showed that anything they can do on the other side of the Atlantic, we can do as well, if not better.
Moreover, whatever you may think of Andrew Lloyd Webber, his record-breaking musicals have, in terms of ballyhoo, hype and dollars at the box office, edged us ahead of the Americans for the first time since the heyday of Gilbert and Sullivan.
But what about the amateur theatre? A belief still persists in some quarters that our amateur societies are a bit of a joke. Not up to the job. Should have stayed at home. The Weakest Link. Of course if you are looking for equality, it's no contest. It would be like Steeple Cinderby winning the FA Cup. With a few thousand pounds to spend, you hardly hope to compete against millions.
But pound for pound, each one spent by the amateur packs far more punch than its professional counterpart. If it costs, in round figures and for the sake of argument, a hundred times more to stage a big pro musical than an amateur one, is the result a hundred times better? No, no, a hundred times no.
I would like to propose West Wickham Operatic Society as the Steeple Cinderby of our own district. And that's saying something, with Croydon Stagers, and Croydon Operatic and Dramatic Association (CODA). Excellent companies both, and each making nonsense of the ratio I mentioned. But when the chips are down, West Wickham do seem to have something special in reserve..
I used to know them mainly as a Gilbert and Sullivan company. They had done the lot, even including the rarely-performed Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke. But these days are long gone, and with the exception of their 1994 The Mikado, they haven't touched G&S since the 1980's.
Instead, they have given us such delights as their Sweeney Todd in 1990. Ron Leagas was the barber, Pauline Gregoire Mrs Lovett the piemaker, and Lesley Bennett the director. But the whole team pulled together magnificently to provide an experience that would surely have pleased Stephen Sondheim himself.
Ten years later they gave it another revival which, on the principle that lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice, was not quite as good. Nevertheless, by any reckoning it still brought great distinction to the amateur movement.
I could mention many evenings that have brought huge pleasure in our local amateur musical theatre. The unpaid effort that has gone into them, the commitment, the genuine skill, add up to a movement of which we all ought to be proud.
But West Wickham, who celebrated their 100th show with Carousel more than a decade ago, surely deserve a special place in our affections. Agreed?