‘Hats Off’ to the New Theatre Royal Tea Set Tour

Gail Morgan and Liz Weston, Hunter Gatherer, Albert Road Credit - J. Davey

Part photo essay and part review, local author Julia Davey writes about a series of performances from the over 55s New Theatre Royal Players (NTR Players) and New Theatre Royal Dancers (NTR Dancers) on their recent mini-tour The Tea Set. 

The Tea Set performances took place twice a day in local cafes, bookshops and libraries across Portsmouth between 16th and 30th June 2018. The Players and Dancers are separate companies within Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal, comprising members of the local community aged over 55 years who share a passion for performance, trying something different, and making new friends.

The Players workshops are led by Director Liz Weston and the Dancers by Co-directors Donna Bish and Wendy Davison, who also choreographed the dancing. In one performance Liz Weston stood in for an absent cast member, acting a grandmother with great gusto.

New Theatre Royal Dancers, Café W, Waterstones, Commercial Road Credit – J. Davey

The Tea Set tour is the first of its kind for both the NTR Players and Dancers, many of whom were nervous about performing in public for the first time. Some had only recently joined the NTR. However, the audience would never have guessed as all performed with great professionalism, including adapting seamlessly to the unexpected – from overly excited children, to customers ordering lunch and rather endearingly, the odd customer ambling into the middle of a performance.

The NTR Players cut-out husband, made by The Makers Guild. Credit: J. Davey.

The tour commenced at Canvas Coffee on the 16th June before moving on to other venues, including The Square Kitchen; The Tea Tray; Aspex Gallery; Southsea Tennis Club cafe;  Waterstones Bookshop Café; Lily and Lime Cafe; Hunter Gatherer; and Southsea Library.

The NTR Players

The NTR Players are currently a cast of four: Sandra Holmes, Gail Morgan, Hilary Riddell, and Liz Walsh, who are accompanied by a life size cut out husband made by the Makers Guild (pictured). The group cheered customers with their Dialogues for Grandmothers, a series of short sketches they wrote themselves. Other sketches were inspired by Ladybird’s Books for Grown Ups.  The cast, dressed in everyday clothes, mingled amongst customers enjoying their late morning cuppa or lunch in their local cafes.

NTR Players from left – Gail Morgan, Hilary Riddell, Sandra Holmes, Liz Walsh Credit – J. Davey

Gail joined the NTR Players and the NTR Dancers after retiring from work last summer and arranged a ‘taster’ session before she joined up.

‘I was a member of an amateur dramatics group way back in my 20s but hadn’t done anything like this for a long time, and felt those skills had gone. I didn’t know performing in public nor writing would be part of the Players and was terrified initially but the process for coming up with the grandmother sketches was fun. We worked in pairs and were given the starting line and finishing line.

‘At the first read-out, we were all amazed and the pieces showed a progression from poignant through to totally outrageous, but all with an element of comedy. We really enjoyed performing those because they were ours! I was left with a lovely feeling of achievement – thinking “I never knew I could do that!”‘

All the cast give credit to Liz Weston for her support and encouragement.

Sandra Holmes and Liz Walsh, Portsmouth Central Library Credit – J. Davey

Sandra Holmes is also a newcomer to the NTR Players and echoed Gail’s views.

‘I loved every minute, and whilst I may not have looked it, I was terrified the whole time in fear of forgetting my lines, but everyone was so supportive, I learnt an awful lot, and that I could adapt. By the end, it felt like we were a company, and I was so much more confident. I really enjoyed it’, Sandra said.

Liz Walsh, one of the original members, joined the NTR because it is close to her home and the Players and Dancers combine her two great loves – dance and drama.

‘Deep down I want to be discovered but that won’t happen!’ she said. ‘Although I’m not in the theatre yet, I have had lots of different roles and its mainly about the ‘joy’, as both groups also have great people in them.’

New Theatre Royal Players Hilary Riddell and Gail Morgan, Waterstones Credit – J. Davey

The fourth cast member of the NTR Players, Hilary Riddell, particularly enjoys the camaraderie in the group, ‘and the total confidence that the team would back you up if you forgot your words.’

As well as providing entertainment, the tour brought new customers to local businesses. Manager Emma Prince of Waterstones, Commercial Road, said ‘It makes sense to use the event space we have next to the café when it’s quieter mid-week, and events also bring new custom and encourage regulars back who socialise in the café and make new friends’.

New mum Maria Chu saw the Tea Set twice at Waterstones with her baby boy. She said, ‘I love coming to Waterstones as I can bring my baby son. The performances were great, and I can certainly relate to the sketches about the grandmothers even though I am of a different generation. I have missed going to the theatre since giving birth to my son, so it’s fantastic to enjoy it here.’

New Theatre Royal Dancers, Cafe W, Waterstones Credit – J. Davey

Brian Morton, proprietor of Hunter Gatherer explained his support for different events in the café. ‘It brings people together to socialise in a non-alcoholic environment and to experience new things.’

Customer Helen Bodkin said, ‘It’s very good to see vibrant women of a certain age sharing their passions whilst entertaining customers. The venue at the Hunter Gatherer is intimate and this helps those who are hard of hearing’.

In Central Library’s Lily and Lime cafe, which is staffed by people with learning disabilities, customer Maria Cole regularly attends arts performances in Portsmouth and said,  ‘The sketches were really funny. I also like venues such as Lily and Lime, where I can support people with learning difficulties in their everyday lives.’

Sandra Holmes, Liz Walsh, Lily and Lime, Portsmouth Central Library Credit- J. Davey

Liz Weston, workshop leader and Director of the Players, was greatly impressed with the way the cast developed in confidence and learned to adapt and interact with the audience. She said, ‘Professionalism is simply a state of mind and top marks to the cast for developing comic timing, adapting to the unexpected and being very much in charge of their performance.’

The NTR Dancers

The NTR Dancers performing on the tour comprised ten local women, from long retired dancers to newcomers with no dance experience at all. They worked together to create a moving performance that opened with words from an e.e. cummings poem and centred on Carry Fire by Robert Plant. Co-directors Donna Bish and Wendy Davison explained that the dance was about the joy of emerging spring and the pagan fires of Beltane that celebrate new life and embody the sun.

The New Theatre Royal Dancers at Southsea Tennis Club. Credit – Liz Weston

Previous dance experience is not necessary to be part of the group, it is aimed at anyone 55 years and over who loves to move and dance. The group aims to harness members’ passion, create new works and perform them to the community in tours such as the Tea Set, showing members and the community what it is possible to achieve together.

The Tea Set dance troupe comprised Elly Bolter, Elaine Collins, Christine Eccleston, Mary Glue, Sylvia Harvey, Anna Koor, Gail Morgan, Johanna Newland, Ruth Parke and Sue Sawyer.

NTR Dancers from left – Gail Morgan, Johanna Newland, Elly Bolter, Elaine Collins, Christine Eccleston, Ruth Parke, Sylvia Harvey, and Anna. Credit – J. Davey

The Tea Set tour and its supporters deserve a huge vote of thanks for an inspiring series of local performances. Everyone involved clearly enjoyed it as much as local audiences and there is much we can learn from taking performances like these directly to the local community in cafes, libraries and bookshops.

UPDATE 23/102018: The organisers of the Tea Set wish to acknowledge that the project was part of the Community Platform and was funded by the NTR and The Big Give. The Portsmouth Festivities provided some marketing support which was gratefully received.

The New Theatre Royal Players and Dancers meet every Tuesday at the NTR Minghella Studio (Dancers 10.15 a.m.-12.15 p.m. and Players 12.30 p.m.-2 p.m.) between September and June. Do you fancy having a taster session or joining up? Contact the New Theatre Royal Box Office on 02392 2649000 or email info@newtheatreroyal.com.