Ex-submariner Mike Williams has just retired as South Downe Musical Society stage manager, writes Chris Owen
With arms flailing wildly, Mike Williams bounces up and down in the box.
His boyish enthusiasm for the old theatre is infectious. ‘Just look at what we’ve all achieved. It’s absolutely fantastic isn’t it?
‘If we hadn’t done all this, imagine, this place would now be a pub.’
We’re sitting in a box, stage right at the elegant 107-year-old Kings Theatre in Southsea.
But to really experience his love of the place you need to accompany him into his backstage world, particularly down in the bowels beneath the stage. That’s where he blossoms.
‘Just look at those.’ He points up to the underside of the stage where large pieces of timber protrude.
‘That’s the original mechanism that operated the trap doors so you could make people disappear. They don’t work any more but they’re still here after all these years.’
He points to a trickle of water seeping into the cellar and into a drain three feet away.
‘They built this theatre on the Great Morass. It used to flood regularly and there have been times when the band in the orchestra pit got their feet wet.’
He recounts the story of the day last year when this basement was deliberately flooded by firefighters and a five-feet long model submarine floated on the water. It was done as part of the theatre’s fundraising Submarine Day.
Which brings us neatly to Mike’s 30 years in the Royal Navy, 10 of them as submariner. Now 63, he retired as a lieutenant commander.
But it was while working with submarines at the old HMS Dolphin that he developed his love for theatre and the smoke and mirrors that could be used to fool an audience.
‘We had an old Porpoise-class submarine there tied up doing nothing, HMS Grampus.
‘Me and a fleet chief engineer decided she should be put to some use for training so we rigged her up so that you could recreate the exact sensation of diving.
‘The Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command – a submariner – visited one day and we ‘dived’ the boat. It was so realistic he asked to see the depth gauge to see how deep we’d gone. Of course, we hadn’t moved. All smoke and mirrors.’
It was while serving at HMS Vernon (now Gunwharf Quays) and then HMS Dryad at Southwick that Mike’s second career in the theatre began. He put on the Christmas show Follow The Star at Vernon, repeated it the following year at Dryad, and by then he’d caught the bug.
Last month Mike retired as the stage manager with the South Downe Musical Society. He’d organised all that smoke and all those mirrors behind the scenes for 31 shows (three a year). He’d been heavily involved in the past 60.
His involvement with SDMS and their shows at the Kings has led to him becoming a director of the trust which has revived the fortunes of the theatre.
The Kings runs in the family.
‘My daughter Julie started as a dancer on the Kings stage and my youngest grandaughter, Layla, dances here too. My son’s performed here and my wife has done the make-up in the past.’
He loves the old place, especially when local amateur groups take it over.
‘By day they might be solicitors, estate agents, garage mechanics, or work in shops, but they come in here to perform and they are transformed into West End stars for the night – with shows that have all the quality of the West End.
‘The public perhaps don’t appreciate exactly how good the leading amateur groups in this city are.
‘It costs South Downe between £35,000 and £40,000 to put on a show – a figure which might stagger some.
‘Yes, it’s a lot of money and people complain about having to pay £10 or more for a ticket, but do they ever think about the costs of staging an amateur production?’
A group like South Downe takes over the Kings for seven days – Sunday to Sunday. And hiring the theatre is the biggest cost, about £15,000 a week.
It costs a minimum of £2,000 to week to hire professionally-made sets for musicals. On top of this there are backcloths, costumes and backstage equipment to be hired and the theatre’s technicians to be paid for a week’s work. And, of course, there’s the orchestra and a conductor to be paid.
Mike says the leading groups like South Downe, the Portsmouth Players, HumDrum or CCADS (Corpus Christi Amateur Dramatics Society) often feature actors who have appeared professionally on the London stage, but who return Portsmouth when out of work.
‘They come back, get a job and turn to groups like ours to perform. That’s one of the reasons the quality is so good. It’s also a marvellous training ground for youngsters.’
So will he find it difficult to turn his back on the stage world?
‘We’ve got a holiday home in France. But when we’re not there, it will be lovely to come to the Kings, sit in the audience and see a show properly for once.’