A Brief History of the GST
The Garden Suburb Theatre's history stretches back over a hundred years. Dr Stephen Coffin, a former member whose memory reached back to the early pageants before the First World War and who continued his membership right up until his death in 1984 (contributing a review to our Newsletter in 1981), recalled that the presentation of plays in Hampstead Garden Suburb had begun with a group of about 20 people in 1908. Although no record has survived of what was performed in the first two years, we have details of the main productions between 1910 and 1915 and a complete record of those put on since 1920.
The Garden Suburb Theatre, known until 1992 as the Hampstead Garden Suburb Dramatic Society (HGSDS), was formed in 1966 by the amalgamation of two societies: the Play and Pageant Union (P&PU), founded in 1920, and the Speedwell Players, founded in 1929. The P&PU was itself a successor to the Pageant Committee, whose origins lay in the organising committee for the first pageant The Masque of Fairthorpe (an allegory about the founding of Hampstead Garden Suburb) in September 1910. In May 1911 the funds and costumes left over from this pageant were used to set up what was known as the "Theoric Fund", administered by a "Theoric Committee", named after the ancient Athenian equivalent of the Arts Council. Fondness for the language of antiquity faded after a year or two, and the Theoric Committee became the Pageant Committee in 1913. It performed its last pageant in the summer of 1914 and although it met in 1915 and again in 1916 it mounted no more pageants and dissolved itself in 1920 immediately before the establishment of the P&PU. The P&PU revived the staging of pageants and they were performed every year in Little Oak Wood until 1939, except for one or two years when Shakespeare was given instead. The open air show performed by GST each summer continues this tradition of outdoor drama.
The "Play" side of the P&PU catered for the interests of indoor thespians. In October 1910 the 1908 group had formed themselves into the Hampstead Garden Suburb Dramatic Club. (Arguably this makes us nearly the oldest society in Hampstead Garden Suburb, the oldest being - very properly for a garden suburb - the Horticultural Society, founded in 1909). The HGS Dramatic Club changed its name to the Guild of Dramatic Art in April 1913. Various other drama groups were active in the period before the First World War, the other main one being the Literary Theatre. The Literary Theatre continued performing until at least April 1915, and there is mention of a performance "by the residents" of Othello in December 1915; after that no further productions took place until the formation of the P&PU in January 1920.
Since 1920 the focus of dramatic activity in the Suburb has been the P&PU, joined in 1929 by the Speedwell Players, and since 1966 the HGSDS, now GST. Initially at least, the P&PU was seen by its critics as rather too high brow and the Speedwell Players as distinctly lightweight. By contrast we now aim for a programme that balances these different approaches. Other societies were also active during this period, notably the St Jude's Players and the Touchstone Players (associated with the Free Church), although their records are much less complete.
The lists of plays that we have performed over the years make fascinating reading. Not surprisingly, Shakespeare comes out top, with forty-eight productions. In second place is George Bernard Shaw, and in third our own Terry Rogers, who since 1974 has had more plays performed than the Bard himself. Predictably, A Midsummer Night's Dream holds the joint record with seven performances. It is joined on the top spot by Twelfth Night, another favourite, with seven. More surprisingly, Love's Labour's Lost and Cinderella tie in third place with five each.
Several members can trace back their membership over fifty years. In 2007 GST contributed to Hampstead Garden Suburb's centenary celebrations with a production of a specially written pageant Dame Henrietta's Dream by Ian Davidson, the cast of which featured new members alongside those who had been members for decades. This followed the revival in 2000 of the 1933 pageant The Stars, by Cyril and Enid Kelsey, which was performed along with Bernard Shaw's In Good King Charles's Golden Days to celebrate the Millennium and was attended by HRH The Duke of Gloucester as well as several members of the original 1933 cast! If you have any memories of past productions or comments on the list, please do contact us.
The Hampstead Garden Suburb Archives Trustees are responsible for a wealth of material relating to past productions, including photographs, programmes, posters and newspaper cuttings. The material is held by the London Metropolitan Archives where it can be viewed on Mondays to Fridays (from 9.30am until 4.45pm; 7.30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays). If you have any material which you think might be added to the archives, please email us.
Colin Gregory 2008