Belfrey theatre bats up 50 years

Thursday, October 7, 1971 – a day of drama in Wellington.

The Belfrey Theatre, Wellington, as it looked when it first opened 50 years ago.
The Belfrey Theatre, Wellington, as it looked when it first opened 50 years ago.

Singing and dancing too. Because it was 50 years ago that Wellington Theatre Club opened at its new home with an old time music hall.

It was the realisation of a 20-year ambition by the club to find itself a permanent home.

Since its wartime formation the club had moved about, with venues including a scout hut and a barn loft.

But hard work by club members converted the closed Prince's Street school in Wellington into a theatre. At last, the audience could enjoy comfy seats.

The Belfrey Theatre, Wellington, as it looked when it first opened 50 years ago.

The Prince's Street Art Centre was opened by Councillor Mrs Margaret Shaw, vice chairman of Wellington Urban District Council, who said she had never seen such a transformation.

The entertainment on that epic night was a 1904 music hall portrayed by John Rose, Jim Craib, and Brigida Peccolo, accompanied by pianist Barbara Slack, with the audience encouraged to join in the raucous fun.

There was also Spanish guitarist Geoffrey Dunn, plucking out some ballads, and the evening ended with a short Edwardian drama, The Wages of Sin.

The opening on Thursday, October 7, 1971. Frances Williams presents Councillor Mrs Margaret Shaw with a bouquet on behalf of Wellington Theatre Club. Looking on is Frances' father, Roy, chairman of the club.

Today the Belfrey Theatre, as it is known, is celebrating its golden jubilee, although in actual fact it got in the celebrations early with a special show on September 10 and 11 which included what was described as a "very silly" attempt to sum up the last 50 years in five minutes.

Coronavirus has of course had its impact over the last year or so, but chairman Brian Hughes says: "We are still going strong with a thriving adult and youth membership.

"Our youth theatre kept going with weekly Zoom meetings and projects throughout the lockdowns and the adults created and streamed a number of video shows.

"We're back in the theatre and have a full programme scheduled for the season ahead, fingers crossed. We have a website and are active on Facebook but if you look us up remember we are belfrey with 2 'e' s – spell checker is our enemy!"

The Belfrey Theatre in Wellington.

The theatre club was formed in 1940 and over the years moved from venue to venue. It left the town's drill hall in 1963 and was homeless for a while, but by its silver jubilee year of 1965 was able to use the new hall and stage at the then Walker Technical College, and acquired the use of a stable at the Charlton Hotel as a "green room." The near derelict building was renovated by members to make it suitable.

The 1975 production of The Heiress. From left: Jose Grant, Don Mansell, Harry Durnall, and Angela Mansell.

When it eventually found a permanent home in 1971 it was a quote from Jose Grant, founder member and club figurehead, who gave the new theatre its name.

Coming through the door during the conversion work, she said: “My goodness, we must be bats.”

The theatre was subsequently called The Belfry Theatre, although that morphed into The Belfrey Theatre after the name was misspelt on all the literature and the spelling stuck.

Allo Allo in 2014.
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