Witham has thrived from its prox­im­ity to Chelms­ford and Colch­ester, but the town has en­joyed growth, pros­per­ity and a com­mu­nity spirit very much of its own, in­clud­ing a vi­brant am­a­teur dra­mat­ics scene, re­veals Pe­tra Hornsby

Essex Life - - INSIDE -

A place to be en­ter­tained in

In the Dis­trict of Brain­tree, lo­cated be­tween Chelms­ford and Colch­ester, lies the town of Witham. Served by the prox­im­ity of both the A12 and the Nor­wich to Lon­don Liver­pool Street rail ser­vice, the town – like most in this part of Es­sex – has seen quite a bit of de­vel­op­ment and growth. Its com­mu­nity and ameni­ties at­tract young fam­i­lies want­ing the con­ve­nience of a town’s fa­cil­i­ties while en­joy­ing a rea­son­able com­mute to work based on the out­skirts to Lon­don.

Con­ve­nience played an im­por­tant part in the town’s an­cient his­tory too. Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal digs un­cov­ered signs of ne­olithic habi­tants as well as the re­mains of a Ro­man tem­ple. As the set­tle­ment was lo­cated along the Ro­man road be­tween Colch­ester (Ca­mu­lo­dunum) and Chelms­ford (Cae­saro­ma­gus), it would have been a wel­come stop­ping off point for trav­ellers.

In the 18th cen­tury, a Dr Tav­erner cre­ated an un­usual in­come for the town through the dis­cov­ery of a min­eral spa. Peo­ple would visit the spa to drink the wa­ter be­liev­ing it to have cer­tain cu­ra­tive prop­er­ties. The town’s foot­ball team, Witham Town FC, play at Spa Road, per­haps still bol­stered by el­e­ments of the past, cer­tainly on win­ning days! Witham, like many towns across Es­sex, also played an im­por­tant role in the wool in­dus­try, un­til its de­cline in the late 17th cen­tury.

With a pop­u­la­tion to­day of over 25,000, the town is served by nine pri­mary schools and two se­condary schools. As well as the foot­ball team, there is a rugby club and both men’s and women’s hockey teams, as well as a bowls club for the slightly less en­er­getic. The River Brain runs through the town and there is a three­and-a-half mile walk to be taken fol­low­ing its course with plenty of sights to en­joy and wildlife to spot too. The town cen­tre is a com­bi­na­tion of old and new and has a lively mix of shops, cafes and restau­rants.

Quite unique to the county is the town’s an­nual pup­pet fes­ti­val. The Witham In­ter­na­tional Pup­pet Fes­ti­val is or­gan­ised by the Town Coun­cil and keenly sup­ported by lo­cal busi­nesses. Held in Septem­ber with a dif­fer­ent theme each year, and in venues across the town, the spec­ta­cle in­cludes sto­ry­telling and free craft work­shops plus, of course, lots of pup­petry.

As far as en­ter­tain­ment goes, one com­mu­nity club has been head­lin­ing in the town for sev­eral decades, with con­sis­tent suc­cess and pop­u­lar­ity. Witham Dra­matic Club has been go­ing for over 60 years and has staged at least 140 plays. Pre­vi­ously, there had been a mu­si­cal so­ci­ety in Witham but, in 1946, Mr Clif­ford Smart de­cided to in­sti­gate a group for those in­ter­ested in con­ven­tional

the­atre. His play read­ing group was a mod­er­ate suc­cess, but cre­ated enough en­thu­si­asm and in­ter­est to fur­ther de­velop the idea and, in 1947, the Witham Dra­matic Club was born. Two years later, the club’s first pro­duc­tion – Staff Dance – was staged and the fol­low­ing two decades saw a growth in both mem­ber­ship and con­fi­dence, in­clud­ing a pro­duc­tion of Ten­nessee Wil­liams’ A Street­car Named De­sire.

By the early 1960s, the club was putting on two pro­duc­tions a year and to keep au­di­ences keen the best for­mula seemed to be stick­ing to come­dies and farces, although Shake­speare got an oc­ca­sional nod as well as im­por­tant 20th cen­tury play­wrights.

The 1970s her­alded a slight sea change to­wards more so­phis­ti­cated choices of plays and the group were not afraid to tackle more con­tro­ver­sial works such as The Killing of Sis­ter Ge­orge by Frank Mar­cus. A pro­duc­tion of Oh What a Lovely War in 1980 brought them award-win­ning suc­cess and by 1982 the club were stag­ing three pro­duc­tions a year.

In the 1990s the club won the North West Es­sex The­atre Guild Best Pro­duc­tion Award for four years run­ning. Awards were given for Ac­ci­den­tal Death of an Anar­chist (1994), Amadeus (1995), The Glass Menagerie (1996) and The Care­taker (1997).

Nigel North­field is the business man­ager for the Witham Dra­matic Club (WDC) and he ex­plains his in­volve­ment now and how the club is far­ing in the 21st cen­tury.

“I have been in­volved in WDC for al­most as long as I can re­mem­ber, as my mother was one of the founders,” says Nigel. “I re­mem­ber be­ing dragged along to help with set­ting up and then, as time went on, I started to get in­volved in the sound and light­ing. We are a self-fund­ing group and luck­ily our ticket sales make enough to cover the cost of the pro­duc­tions. We build our own sets and source cos­tumes, which helps with the bud­get of each play.”

Another key help in stag­ing the pro­duc­tions is the low cost of the venue. Witham Pub­lic Hall was once run by Brain­tree Dis­trict Coun­cil and, thanks to a sup­port­ive mem­ber of the coun­cil, his­tor­i­cally favoured a rea­son­able pric­ing struc­ture for those who wanted to use the hall, see­ing it as a com­mu­nity as­set. When the coun­cil then de­cided to re­lin­quish their care­tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, Nigel (among oth­ers) de­cided to set up a char­i­ta­ble trust to over­see its run­ning and main­tain it as a key part of the town’s events pro­gramme. The venue now hosts a great va­ri­ety of mu­sic, talks and en­ter­tain­ment in­clud­ing an an­nual beer fes­ti­val.

Nigel con­tin­ues: “WDC has a cur­rent mem­ber­ship of around 40 with around a third be­ing very in­volved, although all of our mem­bers are vi­tal, whether act­ing, di­rect­ing or sell­ing pro­grammes on the night. There is also a mu­si­cal so­ci­ety in the town which cur­rently at­tracts more younger peo­ple want­ing to tread the boards, but all ages and in­ter­ests are more than wel­come to join us.”

The group cur­rently stages a pro­duc­tion in March, June and Novem­ber. “Our June pro­duc­tion tends to be on a smaller scale and maybe of a more spe­cial­ist in­ter­est. This year’s choice was Play­house Crea­tures by April De An­ge­lis about the lives of five Restora­tion ac­tresses, which many hailed as be­ing one of the best things we have ever done. We had a fan­tas­tic cast although, sadly, it didn’t at­tract the au­di­ence num­bers we would have liked.”

This Novem­ber the pro­duc­tion is Pri­vate Peace­ful by Michael Mor­purgo and is ex­pected to at­tract a large au­di­ence.

“As we mark 100 years since the end of World War I, the play is ap­pro­pri­ate as the two char­ac­ters re­flect on their ex­pe­ri­ence of the bat­tle­fields of Flan­ders. Michael Mor­purgo is well known and liked by peo­ple of all ages and I am sure it will be well-re­ceived,” adds Nigel.

Clubs like WDC re­ally are part of the bedrock of com­mu­ni­ties and, although these days en­ter­tain­ment comes to us in so many dif­fer­ent for­mats, noth­ing re­ally beats the en­joy­ment of a good play, per­formed with pas­sion in a handy lo­cal venue. Long may they con­tinue!

Find out more Tick­ets for Pri­vate Peace­ful are avail­able from with­am­dra­matic.co.uk or at Witham Pub­lic Hall.

ABOVE:Witham Dra­matic Club pre­se­n­a­tion of Gen­er­a­tions Apart

ABOVE:Dorothy L Say­ers’ statue in Witham is fur­ther ev­i­dence of the town’s ded­i­ca­tion to the Arts

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