Life President of South Downe Musical Society, Audrey Pring has been dancing all her life. After delaying her retirement to direct Fiddler On The Roof one last time, she talks to James Butler.
Audrey Pring has been dancing from the age of two-and-a-half, when her mother bought her some lessons.
Now 85, Audrey’s love of dance is still burning strong. She is the Life President of the South Downe Musical Society, one of Portsmouth’s longest-running amateur dramatic companies.
When she is not directing a cast she teaches tap and ballet at her dance school, the South Downe School of Dance.
Rehearsals are in full swing for this year’s production of Fiddler On The Roof, but when the curtain closes on the final performance it will also signal Audrey’s retirement as the society’s director.
In the years between taking her first steps as a dancer and this moment, Audrey has led a life dedicated to her love of the stage. including a stint as a tiller girl and touring the revue circuit in her teens.
‘When I was a girl I used to belong to Bert Hatfield’s Globe Trotters, which was an accordion band. I used to do all the dance solos and every weekend I would travel all over Hampshire with them,’ she says.
‘I remember that my first revue was called Time For Laughter and I was billed as Little Audrey.’
‘That was what I was doing until I joined Madam Walker and The Victoria Girls at the age of 14 and went to Exeter to do my first pantomime. After that I went on tour with the same group. It was a fabulous time.’
Audrey’s mother, Maude Fennemore, came to see her daughter perform and came face to face with the realities of a working theatre company.
‘My mother was very strait-laced. Normally people weren’t allowed to come to the stage door but some chap told her where my dressing room was and she came to see me.
‘All the girls were sat in front of the mirror topless, and there were boys getting changed there as well.
‘My mother’s first words were “Audrey, cover yourself up!”
‘My friends always used to pull my leg about it.
‘She started me dancing and was proud of me doing it but she didn’t realise that we would be getting undressed in front of other people.
‘This was in the late 1930s and it was her first experience of her daughter on the stage.
‘We were all in the middle of a quick change so we didn’t care.’
Audrey continued travelling around the country with the Victoria Girls until the bombing during the Second World War made it unsafe for her to continue.
Her last performance with the girls was at the Hackney Empire, when her mother wrote to her to ask her to come home.
Her adventures didn’t end there however.
Audrey auditioned to be one of the Tiller Girls, a well-established dance troupe famous for their ‘tap and kick’ routines and glamorous costumes.
‘I went to Soho in London and stayed at the Theatre Girls Club for a week.
‘I couldn’t do a flat split because I got stiff and they wouldn’t let me go home until I could do it.
‘Thankfully I did and then I went to Bradford with them.’
During her stint as part of the Tiller Girl line-up Audrey rubbed shoulders with one of their most famous alumni, former speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd.
‘When we went into a summer season in Blackpool Betty Boothroyd was our lead girl.
‘You can imagine what it was like – you weren’t able to talk to her.
‘With the Tiller Girls we were so isolated, you never knew who was joining us and people never stayed long.’
Audrey left the Tiller Girls when she decided to start a dance school, and met her husband Philip at home in Portsmouth.
‘My husband was in the navy and I met him at a dance.
‘He spent the whole evening trying to teach me how to dance and at the end of the night he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a dance teacher!’
Audrey started her dance school, instructing children while travelling to London weekly for teaching lessions.
She married Philip in 1953, and they had two children, Alan and Susan.
Being a mother and a teacher, Audrey decided she needed a hobby – and after an eventful interview she became choreographer and producer for the South Downe Musical Society in 1967.
Her first show was Goodnight Vienna, and rehearsals took place in a room in The Bugle pub in Fareham.
‘I was a bit nervous, but when I did the first rehearsal I realised they were easier to teach than kids. It was a doddle.
‘The only hard part was that when you were rehearsing you would look around and the men were gone to have a drink in the pub.
‘I got that under control by shouting like a fishwife I suppose.’
Over 100 productions later, and Audrey has decided to retire from directing musicals.
She will continue to teach a weekly Saturday class at her dance school alongside other teachers, many of whom are former pupils of hers.
‘Dance has been my fountain of youth because you are with the girls dancing around and forget you are getting older. You have got to show them how to do it.’
As Audrey’s final production approaches, what is she going to do when it finishes?
‘I will find something. I have got to the stage where I am quite satisfied with what I have done with the society and my career.
‘I will not be sat around watching the television, I can tell you that.’
It’s all in the name
After being a Tiller Girl, Audrey’s desire to teach dance became a reality when she founded the South Downe School of Dance.
It started from humble beginnings after her mother persuaded her to become a teacher.
‘In the beginning I only taught three children and my gran, Nelly Dawdry, said I could teach them in her front room in Beasant Road,’ Audrey says.
‘I found that soon enough I had so many pupils that I couldn’t fit them all in there so I had to find somewhere else to teach.
‘She thought I was the best thing since sliced bread so she didn’t mind, but my grandad was fed up of us banging around. They didn’t have teleivison then, so he had to listen to all the noise.’
Audrey would later become involved with another similarly-titled musical society and her interview was as dramatic as their shows.
‘The president and founder of the South Downe Musical Society, Mrs Parkes, advertised for a choreographer, and I was invited to the final rehearsal of their production of New Moon.
‘When I went there was a row between the producer and the choreographer and the producer decided to quit.
‘By the time I came home I was booked to do their choreography and direction. I hadn’t directed before.
‘My husband said “you must be daft”, and I have been with them ever since.’