Taking on a dangerous task of the choirmaster

Hi, I’m Ian Ball and I’m playing the role of Elias Hall the choirmaster at St. Mary’s parish church in Oldham.  Set in 1701 ‘Singers not Sinners’ tells the true story of how Elias Hall convinces the vicar and the Bishop of Chester to allow women to sing in church, something that had been forbidden since the birth of Christianity.

It was a dangerous task and he could have been severely punished for his actions.  Speaking out and going against the wishes of the parish elders could lead to a time in the stocks, prison or even worse.  All it would take would be an accusation from someone else, even a false one, and the constable would be knocking on your door.

We do know a little about Elias Hall.  He was born within ‘bowshot’ of St Mary’s Parish Church and took on the role of choirmaster in 1696, on the death of his predecessor Abraham Hurst.  In 1708 Hall compiled and published one of the earliest collections of provincial parish music: ‘The Psalm-Singers Compleat Companion’.  Thankfully he wrote down his predecessors teaching methods in a memorandum book dated 1701 and kept a detailed record of his experiences as choirmaster in Oldham, without which it is unlikely that his story and those of the women who sang in church for the very first time, could be told today.

This is my first time performing with Saddleworth players but have played with other local societies over the last 12 years or so, having come late to the boards.  Earlier this year I was presented with  the NODA Northwest region award for ‘Best Male Lead in a Musical’ for my role as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof with Saddleworth Musical Society way back in 2019 (Yes Covid 19 slowed things down a little).

I play guitar, button accordeon and blues harmonica, none of which existed three centuries ago and being ‘cantankerous’, ‘curmudgeonly’, and ‘bloody minded’ means that I am well qualified to take on this role.

I’m looking forward to bringing Elias Hall back to life 321 years after he put his neck on the line for church music and for which, thankfully, he didn’t lose it.

‘Singers not Sinners’ will be performed by Saddleworth Players at Millgate Arts Centre from the 4th to the 9th of June and then the 11th, there is no performance on Whit Friday the 10th

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some of the cast and crew
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A memorable show, celebrating a memorable happening

The greatest joy in directing your own work is that you don’t have to keep to the script! Rehearsals can be creative experiences, and when actors deliver lines they sometimes do so in ways that were not anticipated. And if their way is good, or better, than was originally conceived then on this occasion it becomes the authorised version.

But the author-director also has to ride the passing humour of the performers, in this case a talented 20-strong cast: “who wrote this stuff?”; “I blame the playwright”; “I want to be a sinner as well as a singer!”

The idea for the play came from my co-writer Livi Michael after a Saddleworth Historical Society talk in 2016. It’s an important story for women, and for the town of Oldham. and we should never underestimate the personal risks that three women took when they first sang in St Mary’s Church. It happened in 1701, and yet only recently have women and girls been allowed to join some of our most prestigious cathedral choirs, and then not without  controversy.

Readings of the draft script by Saddleworth Players and Royal Exchange Elder Company provided valuable feedback which inspired revision. “It’s not dangerous enough”, it was said. “I want to know more about these characters. “You need a scene between these people.” Thankfully there was also a lot of laughter and a particularly memorable comment – “if you ever put this on stage I want to be in it.” Indeed, a number of those first readers are now amongst our cast..

It is easier to write stage directions that require scenes across 18th century Oldham, while insisting that actors perform a psalm as a four part harmony, than it is to make it happen.  Fortunately, this author – director has a magical team supporting the show who conjure up creative solutions in set, costume, lighting and sound..

My dear late friend and former Hulme Grammar colleague Ruth Dixon cast her musical eye over the play and told me we needed our music arranging.  Thanks to her I became acquainted with a gifted young man called Daniel Hicks. Six weeks ago he sat at the Millgate piano and performed his arrangements for the show. Now musical director Peter Wakefield and the cast are filling the theatre with their voices and his arrangements; they sound glorious.

‘Singers Not Sinners’ premiers at The Millgate Arts Centre in Delph, June 4-9th and June 11th It will be a memorable show, celebrating a memorable happening not only for Oldham, but for the country, and in particular for women. Come and see it!

Carol Davies

Director and Co-Writer

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some of the cast and crew

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Lockdown Blues are far behind us

I can tell that the lockdown blues are far behind the Saddleworth Players after sitting in the audience at their latest production at the Millgate Arts Centre – Nobody’s Perfect.

A slick performance of whit and humour, with amazing choreography using the whole of the stage to its full potential. Sitting within the front four rows of the auditorium, we felt we could easily join in the doorstep chats and follow the characters into the living room. Then a swift change of lights and we’re in the efficiently run office of a feminist publishing company, from where women writers are promoted for their raunchy novels.

The play involved a clever and twisted plot that wrapped the characters together similarly to a 1970’s telephone cable tangled into coils. An intercom, mobile phones, and landlines all wove an intriguing web of communication, at times leaving us wondering when they would unexpectantly be tripped up and the brewing secret spill out all over the stage.
From a soft and gentle love connection of the main characters to ever increasing seductive writing of a fictional storyline, the cross over of male and female stereotypes made for fun viewing and amusing quips that left the audience smiling broadly when the final curtain fell.

Well done and thankyou Saddleworth Players for another outstanding evening!

Review by Jude Gidney

Nobody’s Perfect runs from 2nd -9th April 2022

Emma Sykes as Dee-Dee, Ian Perks as Gus , Simon Wood as Leonard
Simon Wood as Leonard, Verity Mann as Harriet
Simon Wood as Mertle

Director’s Preview of Nobody’s Perfect

Simon Wood plays Lulabelle in Nobody’s Perfect
Simon Wood plays Lullabelle in Nobody’s Perfect

Let me introduce you to Leonard, a somewhat frustrated writer. Unfortunately, his manuscripts are always being rejected by publishers. He enters a competition for ‘women only’ under a non-deplume. You can imagine the chaos winning the competition causes. Having to disguise himself as a female brings Mrs Doubtfire, Toosie, and Some like it hot to mind. The final scene is a comic masterpiece. 

Leonard is played by Simon Wood who was last seen at the Millgate Arts Centre in November 2019 in 84 Charing Cross Road. In addition to Leonard we have Gus, a trendy granddad played by Millgate favourite Ian Perks. Making her debut and her return to amateur theatre after a 20 year break is Kim Bennett who plays the part of Harriet, an attractive publisher of ‘Love is all around’ a publishing house. Finally, there is Leonard’s slightly wayward teenage daughter Dee Dee played by Emma Sykes. Emma was in the highly successful play Pastimes staged in February at the Millgate.

Laughs are a plenty in this comedy written by the accomplished actor Simon Williams, who for those old enough to remember, played James Bellamy in the period drama Upstairs, Downstairs, 1971 – 1975.

Melvyn Bates, Director of Nobody’s Perfect

See Nobody’s Perfect at the Millgate Arts Centre, Delph, from 2 – 9 April. Tickets from TicketSource or telephone 01457 874 644 (phone booking charged at £1.80)

‘Pastimes’ opening night review by Jude Gidney

The cast of Pastimes

I had the great pleasure of attending the opening night of the new Saddleworth Players production of Pastimes on Saturday evening. It was touch and go as to whether the show would go on, owing to happenings beyond the Players control: a gas pipe sprang a leak just outside the theatre the day before and with mayhem of the central road in Delph being closed and lack of heating causing the auditorium to plummet to below comfortable sitting temperature. However, with the stoic nature of the Saddleworthothians and beyond, extra layers, coats and scarfs donned, and alternative parking arrangements made, the show certainly did go on! You’ll be pleased to hear, as were we, that the heating came on as the curtains rose and crossed fingers, remains on for the foreseeable future.

The play was a delightfully charming story of lost friends and relationships, beautifully acted by the small troop. If you kept up with the confusion of names and places you were doing well. It’s amazing how the actors managed to run a café and hold a very tricky conversation – all in front of an audience. It definitely was amusing and a good lift for all at this darker time of year. 

The Saddleworth Players have yet again pulled a gem out of a bag, and with an ingenious set and backdrop, a very memorable evening out. I’ll say no more about the set-up, you’ll find out what I mean when you go!

Oohh, and I forgot to mention how smart the Theatre is looking now with a refurbishment and over-do by the Millgate Theatre volunteers during lockdown! Well done to all.

Jude Gidney

Catch the warm-hearted comedy ‘Pastimes’ at the Millgate, Delph, from 12-19 February. Tickets  £10 (£5 students) from TicketSource.

Secrets will out

Lorraine Reynolds plays Winifred in Pastimes

It’s good to be back with Saddleworth Players after such a long wait to bring this play to the stage.

My character is Winifred, Connie’s long suffering friend, whose main source of pleasure seems to be having her feet done. Winifred is reluctantly drawn into the conflict between Connie and the two men they both married forty years ago. Secrets will out and all is not what it seems.

Thank you to our director Carol Davies and all the cast and crew.  It has been great fun.

Lorraine Reynolds plays Winifred in Pastimes

See ‘Pastimes’ by Brian Jefferies at the Millgate Arts Centre from 12th – 19th February. Tickets £10 (£5 students) from TicketSource. Or book by telephone on 01457 874644 (£1.80 booking fee), or buy from the Box Office on show night (subject to availability).

Complicated relationships and the webs we weave

Barbara Micklethwaite plays Connie in Pastimes

Approximately two years ago, I was asked to play the part of Connie in a lighthearted comedy called Pastimes. A runaway grandchild leads Connie to a past she thought she had left behind. The play is about complicated relationships and the webs we weave. 

It was some time since I had appeared at Millgate, so I was looking forward to being back and everyone made me feel very welcome. Reading the part brought a smile to my face as I felt it reminded me of someone – ME – and those watching who know me well, will I am sure appreciate what I am saying.

I have very much enjoyed being part of this production which is of course taking place two seasons later than it should have done, because of Covid and with a change of Director twice. My fellow cast members are great and you would never know Carol Davies took over directing literally at the first read through without any prior warning. I have never had as long to learn a part so let’s hope it pays off. 

Barbara Micklethwaite plays Connie in Pastimes

See ‘Pastimes’ by Brian Jefferies at the Millgate Arts Centre from 12th – 19th February. Tickets £10 (£5 students) from TicketSource. Or book by telephone on 01457 874644 (£1.80 booking fee), or buy from the Box Office on show night (subject to availability).

Preview of ‘Pastimes’ – Carol Davies, Director

Image of Pastimes script
Pastimes by Brian Jefferies

When Covid interfered with the direction of the next show I was asked to step in. A light comedy with an excellent cast – straightforward? No problem … except members of cast and crew had their participation also delayed by the dreaded virus! But it was straightforward …

Well there are two different rooms for a start. With doors to all sorts of places … upstairs, downstairs … in my lady’s chamber! One of the rooms onstage is a sitting room with an ongoing board game – and the other one happens to be a kitchen … but it’s straightforward. And there is food to prepare – on stage. Each night. Lettuce to chop, tomatoes to slice. Plus cheesecake and apple pie, quiche and tuna flan, pastries and carrot cake. But it’s straightforward. Fridges and cookers and washing up in a sink to be used and negotiated. Very straightforward.

So it’s a case of putting on a pinny, rolling up sleeves and getting stuck in. But it is straightforward!

Carol Davies, Director of Pastimes

See ‘Pastimes’ by Brian Jefferies at the Millgate Arts Centre from 12th – 19th February. Tickets £10 (£5 students) from TicketSource. Or book by telephone on 01457 874644 (£1.80 booking fee), or buy from the Box Office on show night (subject to availability).

Review: The Farndale Christmas Carol at the Millgate

Sue Stephenson as Scrooge and John Tanner as Marley

Laughter is said to be the best healer and there is little doubt you will feel better after the Farndale version of ‘A Christmas Carol’. It will bring a broad smile to your face at the opening of the festive season.

From the very first moment you enter Millgate Arts the show has begun. Gordon Pugh with his clipboard and Mrs Reece with her handbag are there to welcome you …. and assess your acting potential.You settle down in the auditorium to Christmassy music and admire the pastel coloured Christmas card of a stage design by Sally McKee, soon to be complemented by the bright primaries of Scrooge’s bed and front door.

The ensemble of five work well together; most have played the Farndale Residents’ Association Townswomen’s Guild Amateur Dramatics Society’s (phew!) characters before. Flexible and talented, they assume all the parts necessary to present both the hapless amateur theatre group and the Dickensian characters needed to tell the story.

Sue Stephenson as Thelma and Pauline Walsh as Mrs Reece relish outplaying the other for the lead actress award as Scrooge and Tiny Tim. Pauline Walsh’s comic timing and interaction with the audience keeps everyone engaged and Sue Stephenson’s “I should be on the West End” Ebenezer sets the diva standard.

John Tanner as Gordon Pugh, the stage manager and only man, is roped in to be Marley and anyone else he is bullied into playing. He succeeds in just about clinging to control with the air of the clumsy Frank Spencer.

Margaret Thompson excellently plays Mercedes who struggles both with her neck brace and entrances. Keri Ely as Felicity is delightfully convincing as the keen but stage shy ingenue who ends up in the most precarious costumes.

Participation is encouraged in the best Panto fashion and the audience on the first night sang and laughed throughout. The support crew at Millgate are as professional as ever and Verity Mann’s direction wrings every ounce of humour from the show. I am still chuckling over one or two of the best lines even now. This show is just the pre- Christmas tonic we need in the grim dark nights of November. It runs Tuesday 23rd-Saturday 27th November @7.30pm at Millgate Arts Centre in Delph.

Carol Davies

Book your tickets at Ticketsource or telephone booking: 014547 874644 (booking fee applies).

Not one to bear a grudge!

David Plowright holding ‘Spartacus’

Now, anyone will tell you that I’m not one to bear a grudge.  Of course we need new blood coming into this theatre, but equally, it takes years of experience to accumulate the skills and wisdom necessary for a professionally staged performance. So these aspiring youngsters can learn by watching us, while doing really useful jobs like – well – coiling cables, dusting the lights and making the tea.

I’ve looked after our lighting as if the lanterns were my own children; they respond similarly when told what not to do. I know them all by name: the comfort blanket –  sorry, lantern – I’m holding in the picture is Spartacus.  Spartacus the spotlight. You can guess what all the other lanterns say when I call his name! (Dad joke).

And now what have these ladies done? Only brought in a young whipper-snapper called Adrian, and told him to operate the lights! I stormed off in High Dudgeon (that’s just beyond Marsden) and I want nothing more to do with it all. I shall sit at the back and prepare my “I told you so!” speech for when it all goes terribly wrong. Bah, humbug!

David Plowright: David is our tech director and is designing and running the lighting for the show and REALLY getting into the Farndale spirit!

Book your tickets early at Ticketsource or telephone booking: 014547 874644 (booking fee applies).