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Questors, Jesters and Renegades

Michael Coveney
Methuen Drama
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Questors, Jesters and Renegades

This book, with the informative subtitle of “The Story of Britain’s Amateur Theatre”, can justifiably be described as a labour of love.

From childhood days in Ilford, distinguished theatre critic Michael Coveney has been hooked on the addiction of theatre. Soon enough, along with his brother, the author was happily indulging that addiction with the amateur but far from amateurish Renegades in his home town.

Like almost every other amateur theatre company addressed in the book, the group was led by a gallant but eccentric individual who gave over a significant proportion of his life to ensuring its success.

In this case, Jimmie Cooper was the real McCoy, dedicated to his task but also using it as a means to discover and enjoy the pleasures of the fairer sex.

These amateur organisations are typically independent and unconnected. However, after the war, the Little Theatre Guild (“LTG”) was created to bring a sense of unity and exchanges of ideas.

For the most part, in this history, Michael Coveney has chosen to use an anecdotal style to focus on the development of around 15 theatres across the country, as a representative selection of LTG’s 110 current members not forgetting thousands of other less formal groups. He also highlights the efforts of the leading lights, who selflessly keep the show on the road.

These are the kind of committed individuals who will always muck in, paying for the glamour of acting and directing and spending vast proportions of their lives involved in unpaid administration, promotional and even more mundane tasks such as set-building, selling tickets and occasionally cleaning the latrines.

In addition to the Renegades in Ilford, the two main London companies, Questors in Ealing and The Tower in Canonbury, get appropriate treatment.

Looking further afield, Coveney devotes chapters to theatres with left-wing leanings in Newcastle, Norwich and Halifax and others that were connected to the seeds being sewn for a National Theatre in Kent, Birmingham and beyond, together with what appears to be relatively random selection of outliers.

The Minack on the Cornish coast is even given its own chapter, as a special case.

To lighten the tone, there is a breezy chapter about amdram in books and on film.

Depending upon your viewpoint, it is either encouraging or chastening to read the statement referring to Webster’s The White Devil and Wycherley’s The Country Wife as exemplars of classics that “you are far more likely to find such plays, and others like them, at the Questors. The amateur theatre might well be returning to its pre-eminent position in the 1930s of custodian of the core classical and European repertoires”.

This is part of the Coveney thesis, which suggests that in many cases the quality of acting can compare with the professional stage, while productions are not always like the farcical efforts depicted by Michael Frayn and Alan Ayckbourn on stage and screen.

The fact is that many of those bitten by the acting bug prefer the security of a reliable, 9-to-5 job supplemented by theatrical activities carried out in their spare time. Others may not quite have made the grade as West End or Hollywood stars but continue to pursue their passion with amateur companies.

At the other end of the scale, some use amateur productions as a stepping stone to careers in the profession, an opportunity to exercise the acting muscles while resting or as part of productions that use professionals to supplement their core membership.

As is demonstrated so often, this author has a knack of digging out entertaining stories and conveying them clearly and amusingly. Ultimately, that is the real strength of Questors, Jesters and Renegades.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher