'˜Theatre is a living thing full of energy'
Live performance is an art form going back to the dawn of humankind.
But, in 2016, with so many forms of media vying for our attention – television, Netflix, mobile phones, computer games – going to the theatre is not always our first choice for entertainment.
And when we do go, many people might think it has to be a big night out to see famous names at The Mayflower in Southampton, Chichester Festival Theatre, or a train ride up to London’s West End.
Yet there is an assortment of brilliant theatres right on our doorstep, including the Kings Theatre in Southsea, the New Theatre Royal in the city centre, Ferneham Hall in Fareham, The Spring in Havant and The Station Theatre on Hayling Island.
On a visit to The Station Theatre in West Town, my first impression is that it’s immaculate.
It’s a beautifully-kept building with interesting origins, as Laurie Noble, chairman of Hayling Island Dramatic Society, explains.
‘The auditorium was basically a 60ft long by 30ft wide railway goods shed where trains would pull in to unload their goods,’ says the retired engineer and occasional actor.
‘The only thing you can see that gives away the Victoriana are the beautiful old roof trusses.
‘We physically built everything you can see inside the theatre.
‘The flooring was done by professionals, but we built the stage, put all the bases in for the seating.’
The building was part of the infrastructure for the old Hayling Billy railway line, which made its last trip to Havant in 1963.
When the leaking shell came up for disposal in 1992, the Hayling Island Dramatic Society – formed in 1946 ‘to relieve the boredom of islanders’ – was keen to take it on.
Boosted by a £120,000 lottery grant, the vision of a community theatre came to fruition in 1996.
Over the past 20 years, the society and its supporters have fundraised and spent some £700,000 on the building.
Laurie says: ‘We did every money-raising event you can think of it – before the seats went in, we had dancers in here, sales, exhibitions.
‘At one of the meetings, one of the ladies said “Why don’t we give smartie tubes to all the children. They can fill it with money and give it back”.
‘I thought it was a dopey idea. But we got £2,500 from that!’
On the day of my visit the society are gearing up for a Sherlock Holmes spoof and the finishing touches are being put to the set.
Vicky Fox, a retired accountant who looks after publicity and also does set design and direction, is excited for the next show.
The adult group puts on five shows a year – and Frankenstein will be one later this year, I’m pleased to here as a fan of Mary Shelley.
The youth group does two shows a year and Peter Pan will be performed in June.
‘It’s so satisfying seeing a finished show,’ says Vicky.
‘You can’t explain that buzz you get from an audience when the curtains open and they go “oooooh”.
‘People love the set and then you have the show and they are usually uplifting comedies and people come out and have had a really good time.
‘It makes being behind the bar or front of house interesting.’
Laurie explains that this is the kind of place ‘where everyone does everything’ and ‘no-one is paid a penny for it’.
It’s been a labour of love – and people certainly do adore this place.
There are hundreds of names personally written on to the bricks of the building, including one familiar one I spot, the former Havant MP David Willetts.
Walking through the theatre and its surroundings, it’s obviously a place of creativity and a place to let your imagination run wild.
The wardrobe room is like an Aladdin’s cave, with plastic bananas hanging from the ceiling, old typewriters, axes, and big boxes labelled ‘animal masks’ and ‘masses of pink spot and flimsy fabric’.
The workshop has rows of stools hanging round the ceilings, all manner of brooms on the walls, and an amusing sign saying ‘Paranoid’ on the wall.
Most of the stuff is donated by the community and on the day I visit a resident pulls up with a delivery of doors, which I’m told are very useful for building sets.
Laurie laughs: ‘People say “I’ve got this old type-writer. It’s either going to the tip or you can have it”.
‘We have almost every telephone for every period ever produced!
‘We have brick phones right up to iPhones.
‘That old desk on the stage has been knocking around for 40 years and no-one knows where it came from!’
I’m shown into the green room, which is unmistakably the colours of the forest to help ‘relax actors when they get off the stage’.
There are various sofas and coffee tables for final read-throughs of scripts and a blonde wig sits on one of the tables.
Vicky explains there’s nothing quite like live theatre.
‘It’s being part of a team effort that creates something that is alive,’ she says.
‘If you see any live drama, it’s a living thing with energy that takes the audience with it.
‘It’s not like seeing a film, it has a life of its own.’
It’s not all about having fun, though. The society has to get bums on seats in order to survive.
Vicky explains: ‘Because we are almost entirely self-funding, we have to make money. We have to fill the houses. We can’t be playing to 20 people some obscure play that nobody has heard of.
‘Our demographic – being older – they want to be uplifted and entertained.
‘If we want to make some money, we’ll for an Agatha Christie because that pulls people in.’
The theatre also shows up to 12 movies a year.
Laurie chuckles: ‘We always say here if it’s got Judi Dench, Colin Firth and Maggie Smith in it, it doesn’t matter what it’s called, people will come and see it!’
Two musical societies also perform at the theatre – Corpus Christi from Portsmouth and Hayling Island Musical Society.
Laurie explains it is a hub for the community, performing a variety of roles.
‘For the ladies who work the box office during the day it’s a social thing for them,’ he says.
‘Retired guys come and work in the workshop, saw up wood and build stage sets and put the world to rights.
‘So it’s a social gathering.’
Asked why he loves this place so much and works for no financial reward, Laurie says: ‘I love the fact that its ours.
‘I want everybody to think “this is mine”.
‘It’s the way people walk across the car park and see a discarded paper bag and put it in the bin.
‘Everybody looks after it.
‘Of course we all love acting and messing about.’
So, next time you are looking for a night-out or want to cheer yourself up, spare a thought for your local theatre.
It may surprise you.
Vicky adds: ‘Don’t say it’s amateur dramatics, so I won’t enjoy it.
‘Come along because you will find there are some actors who are excellent.
‘There are thousands of actors and very few jobs. So a lot of people are satisfying their need to be on the stage by joining amateur dramatics societies.
‘It’s not just the local vicar and his cronies any more!’
For further details and show listings for The Station Theatre, visit stationtheatre.co.uk or call (023) 9246 6363.