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
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