Arundel Festival play remembers Britain’s first all-female professional theatre company

We Happy Few - Josh Elms & Siobhana Healy - photo by Rosey Purchase
We Happy Few - Josh Elms & Siobhana Healy - photo by Rosey Purchase

Fascinating research at the V&A in London lies behind Arundel Players’ Arundel Festival production of We Happy Few by Imogen Stubbs.

Performances will be at the Players’ Priory Playhouse from August 17-24 – a fictitious story inspired by the Osiris Players, Britain’s first all-female professional theatre company founded in 1927 and led until the early 1960s by the indomitable director Nancy Hewins.

Touring schools, towns and village halls throughout the country, they presented cut-down versions of the classic repertoire of plays.

The second year of the war was their finest hour during which they put on hundreds of performances of 33 plays, 16 of them Shakespeare. Before and after the war, Osiris travelled in two Rolls Royces, one cream and white and one sheer black, Hewins maintaining they were the only vehicles that could carry the scenery and costumes. During the war they battled with a horse and dray.

The actual company was never any larger than seven and everybody did everything: acting, props, costumes, cooking and changing tyres.

We Happy Few brings them to life.

Pat Moss will be providing the costumes for the Arundel Players and Barry Jarvis will be directing.

“I work with the Arundel Players when they want to do something with period costumes,” Pat says. “If they are doing something that’s modern, I tell them they can sort themselves out!

“We Happy Few is based on this real-life theatrical company, and Barry and I went up to the V&A to look at the archive.

“I saw that Imogen Stubbs when she wrote the play had been to the V&A.

“She was donating material from her grandmother who had been a playwright during the 40s and 50s and had written two popular comedies.

“She was giving them a lot of material of her grand-mother’s for safekeeping and saw that they also had a lot of stuff from the Osiris Players. I don’t know if she knew they had it, but she had maybe heard of the company before she went there.”

Barry and Pat followed in her footsteps and chanced on a fascinating discovery: a diary which detailed the fact that the Osiris Players had toured to a string of villages between Arundel and Chichester in September 1949.

“There were lots and lots of newspaper reports on productions that they had done, but one of the boxes had this diary for September 1949 which showed all the places they had played in this area.”

They played Eastergate on September 16; Angmering WI on September 19; Warningcamp WI on September 20; Barns Green on September 21; Henfield on September 22; East Preston, Little-hampton and West Wittering on September 23; Graffham on September 26; Washington on Sep-tember 27 and Chichester on September 28.

“I suddenly thought that it could be possible that there could still be people around here who remember those productions.

“I wonder if the local WIs have got any information. It kind of leads you off on a bit of a detective trail!

“With this show, Barry and I sat down and we spent about three days working through the costumes.

“What I am doing for all the ladies is that they have all got a basic 1940s outfit, and then they put over the top of it the costumes of the characters that they play.”

One scene involves a string of figures from history.

“And then they do the Scottish play. I had a rummage through my collection of things and found all sorts of odds and sods that would be suitable.

“They will be performing as characters from the plays they do. You have got the story of how they got grant to do the shows.

“There is lots of humour in it and also the story of how they got to do the plays.”

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