Early plays of the 1940s
There is a grey area between Hassan in 1939 and This Happy Breed in 1947. Plays were performed, but we know almost nothing about many of them. Ellen George (later Blatcher) wrote a handwritten list of past productions going up to 1979, which suggests it was written over 30 years later and is subject to the vagaries of memory. So, when it contradicts the list shown on the reverse of the playbill for The Importance Of Being Earnest (1947), we are inclined to believe the latter.
Interestingly, neither list includes 20th Century Lullaby, widely cited as the Society’s first play in April 1936. Perhaps it was one of the readings performed in Mabel Fredericks’ play room and wasn’t considered by the founder members to be a proper performance. We have also failed to find any evidence for The Madonna (1936), which was in the list of past productions on programmes during the 1980s but not listed since. Oddly, Hassan had fallen out of the official list by this time, even though it was clearly the Society’s most ambitious production in its early years, with the programme for This Happy Breed stressing: “Open-air production, over 100 performers”.
The problem with the 1947 playbill is that it doesn’t include any dates. The problem with Ellen Blatcher’s list is that it implies six productions in 1947, which is surely far too many, especially as Ellen’s daughter-in-law, Ann Blatcher, relates that the Players put on shows “while the bombs dropped”, so some of these shows might have been performed during the war (we are not aware of anyone bombing Chelsfield after 1945). Also, Ellen’s list places Love From A Stranger in 1951, but the 1947 playbill lists it as a past production, so either Ellen’s memory was faulty (she got the date for Berkeley Square wrong) or the Society performed it twice.
Other than 20th Century Lullaby, we know the dates of the 1930s plays for sure. Earnest and its predecessors, This Happy Breed and Noah, are also certain, and we are pretty sure (though not 100% sure) that New 66 And All That was produced in 1946. To be fair to the 1947 playbill, it states “some of the Society’s past productions”, which does imply omissions and allows us to place Cinderella (which one source places in December 1945) and Duet For Two Hands among the earlier plays. That presumption even makes room for The Madonna, though we are not yet ready to place it in the official archive.
One could infer some approximate dates from the cast lists if we had them. Fortunately some pictures have been annotated with names, so we can see that the cast of Love From A Stranger were all present in the 1930s and one, Joyce Stacey, never appears for the Society after 1946, implying the earlier date. However, Phyllis Nash, who appears in And So To Bed, does not appear again until 1954, which by the same logic implies a later date for that show (which also has a lavish set and sumptuous costumes that seem out of keeping with post-war austerity).
Perhaps both lists are correct but incomplete: we know that Elegant Edward was performed during the war and revived in 1955 because the pictures of the later production are mixed with photos labelled “wartime production”. If the Society did one production in the six years of war, it seems logical to assume that it did others. Perhaps these were small-scale productions in some of the larger houses in Chelsfield Park, and some might have been revived later with fully staged productions, as clearly happened with Elegant Edward.
So this gives us seven plays with uncertain dates but probably performed before 1947 and some of them surely performed during the war:
The Corn Is Green by Emlyn Williams
At least we have some pictures of this, which must mean a post-war production.
And So To Bed by JB Fagan
This romp was listed as a 1951 show despite being on a 1947 list of past productions. It could have been a reduced wartime production later revived as a full stage show.
Robert’s Wife by St John Ervine
Again, we are unable to date this play other than noting that there are enough photos to prove that it was performed after the wartime rationing of photographic film was ended.
Flare Path by Terence Rattigan
We have less evidence for this production than for any other: no playbills, no pictures; just the insistence of contemporary and later records that it is part of the Players’ canon, so it surely must have happened.
Flare Path was first staged in London in 1942. Set in a hotel near an RAF Bomber Command airbase during the Second World War, the story involves a love triangle between a pilot, his actress wife and a famous film star. The play is based in part on Rattigan’s own wartime experiences, and was significantly reworked and adapted for film as The Way to the Stars.
The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley
The fact that we have photos of the production proves it must have been produced after wartime rationing of film was ended. Again, it might have been performed twice.
Love From A Stranger by Frank Vosper
An early production date is suggested by the presence of Joyce Stacey in the cast, who was a member of the Players before the war but does not appear after 1946. However, we have seen members return after absences of more than a decade, so this evidence is hardly definitive.
Elegant Edward by Edgar Wallace
The photo album showing the 1955 production includes photos of an earlier “wartime production”. Since this performance is not listed anywhere else, it allows for the possibility that other shows were performed during the war, perhaps in people’s houses during the day to adhere to blackout regulations.