"I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms." – Oscar Wilde

This year has shown us just how important the creative industries are. Art, music, theatre and film all have the power to heal, entertain and above all, make us feel good. Our wonderful heritage volunteers, Rosemary and Richard, have examined the early roots of Woking's theatrical history - and how Woking became the host of one of the largest annual drama competitions in the British Isles.

Woking’s first link with the stage was the opening of the Royal Dramatic College in 1865, for retired actors and actresses in Maybury.  These buildings have now gone - and have been replaced by Lion Retail Park.  Some of the residents gave readings in pubs around the area but the College ran into financial difficulties and closed in 1877.  A great-niece of the actor David Garrick was among the residents at its closure.

At the end of the nineteenth century, entertainment in Woking centred on the Public Hall, which was built in 1895 on Commercial Road, with 700 seats. It also showed films and although it was remodelled in 1910, it drifted into becoming a rather run-down cinema and closed in the 1930s. Its life as a cinema will be described in our forthcoming blog on Film and Cinemas in Woking.

The Public Hall (building on the left), 1902-07

It wasn’t until 1975 that the town gained its first purpose-built theatre in the Centre Halls complex - and named it after the pioneering Councillor, Rhoda McGaw, a member of the Pears soap family, the first lady chair of Woking Urban District Council and an active member of Woking Drama Association.  Local companies could bring their productions to a wider audience, and when the complex was rebuilt as part of the Peacocks in 1992 by the Ambassador Group, the Rhoda McGaw retained its original function and was joined by the large New Victoria Theatre for pantomime, opera, musicals, plays and single big-name performances.

Harry Keat, then Chairman of Woking Urban District Council, laying the foundation stone of the Centre Halls

Amateur Dramatics in Woking 

Woking Drama Festival

This is one of the largest drama competitions for amateur dramatics in the country. An annual event, the competition which focuses on one-act plays celebrated its 61st Festival in 2019.  It is organised by Woking Drama Association, founded just after the first Woking Drama Festival in 1959, and is held over two weeks at the Rhoda McGaw Theatre.  The Association also brought all the local amateur dramatic societies together for an annual pantomime in the Rhoda McGaw theatre.

One of the most well-known winners of one of the many trophies awarded by the Festival was Buster Merryfield who, later in life, became well known for playing ‘Uncle Albert in ‘Only Fools and Horses’. Buster won the best actor trophies at the drama festival in 1966 for his role in ‘The Entertainer’ and in 1968 for ‘The World my Canvas’. His productions of ‘The Entertainer’, ‘The World’s my Canvas’ and ‘A View from the Bridge’ for The Characters Amateur Theatre Group won the best play awards in 1966, 1968 and 1969 respectively.

Many local companies have performed plays in Woking over the years, and the following are among those still active. Present circumstances have forced many to postpone their activities. Similarly, there are a number of stage schools for budding young actors who have suspended courses but hope to rise again with live training and performances.

Horsell Amateur Dramatic Society

This group is the oldest in the area; formed in 1922 with the first public performance of the group being a production of Douglas Murray’s comedy ‘The Man from Toronto’, which ‘Woking News and Mail’ considered a “distinct triumph”. In those days performances were very formal, with the audience in evening dress. 

One of the group’s most notable members was the astronomer, Patrick Moore, who appeared in five productions while teaching at St. Andrew’s School in Horsell. Sadly, no photographs of him in a production survive, although it is known that he had a photographic memory and only had to read his lines once to remember them. Normally HADS produces two shows a year at the Rhoda McGaw Theatre, but still uses Horsell Village Hall as its base for rehearsals.

Pyrford Little Theatre

Originally started as a Pyrford Young Wives’ Group who put on a play in 1956, but then it was realised that the scope of the plays could be widened if men were included in the group, so Pyrford Little Theatre was formed in 1959. The group puts on an annual pantomime each January, together with a drama production in May and enters the Woking Drama Festival in the autumn.

Woking Community Play

The Woking Community Play Association was founded in 1990 with the intention to stage locally produced and cast plays, written by professionals on themes of Woking local history.  Its first production in 1992 was ‘Changing Places’ written by Anne Jellicoe, a survey of changes in Woking and the nation between 1900 and 1929.  Other productions have been based on the archives of the Ockenden Venture - which received refugees in Surrey - and Dame Ethel Smyth, composer and suffragette.

Peer Productions

Founded in 2006, Peer Productions is an award-winning youth arts charity specialising in combining high-quality arts practice with peer education. Based at Woking Youth Arts Centre, they perform at, The Black Box Theatre, an intimate forty seat studio theatre, and at the Rhoda McGaw Theatre.

Do you have a favourite play? Have you seen any theatrical productions in Woking?

For more fascinating blog posts on Woking’s history – or some fun ideas for staying creative, please visit our blog.