The cast of the first ever Phoenix Show “Trains” an anthology of readings, poems, songs & sketches.
Performed in the Small Hall at the Civic in April 1983. The tall man at the back is John Hedge, the first chairman of the group and founder member.

by Karen Carey

The drama group arose from the ashes (hence the name!) of a youth theatre group called T.I.D.Y. (Theatre in Didcot Youth - or something like that!) After a particularly disastrous production of “This Happy Breed” the group had folded and a few of it’s members congregated around peoples houses to read plays etc. They decided to set up a new group and on the 9th of March 1983 the first annual general meeting was held where the constitution of the group was discussed and the committee members formally adopted.
Those early days were hard going. There was no money in the kitty and the group was reliant on subs which were £2.50 per year plus 50p per week and fund raising events like jumble sales. We couldn’t afford the main hall so rehearsed in either the small hall or the committee rooms with extra rehearsals round each others houses when needed. Indeed our first show “Trains” (see photo above) was performed in the small hall. We were lucky in that we had the artistic talents of Rod King (man with moustache next to John Hedge) who painted an amazing backdrop and transformed the small hall into a station and his wife, Daphne, a drama teacher who put us through our paces each week.
Revenue from this show and fund raising activities enabled us to put on “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” by Tom Stoppard - our first show in the main hall. It was an extremely professional and slick show, performed in the round and directed by Daphne. Audiences were good and Didcot seemed hungry for our artistic endeavours. We followed this up in October with an old time musical hall which again saw large audiences as well as enlisting a whole bunch of very talented new members.
Our first pantomime, Puss in Boots, was written and directed by founder member, Tony Sloggett (still occasionally active in Steventon Pantomimes). We had no scenery to speak of and so invested in several canvas backdrops. Unfortunately, Rod and Daphne King had moved away by this point and the scenery was dependent on the rather less artistic members of the group. I remember coming down to the civic hall one
weekend a couple of weeks before the show and spending the day fire proofing backdrops with some revolting smelling gunk before they could be painted. It stank the whole hall out because it had to be boiled on the hob in the kitchen before it was used. Luckily we got on really well with the civic hall manager.

The Cast of our very first panto - “Puss in Boots”

1984 was a mad year with a total of seven shows staged! After the panto some bright spark in the group offered to stage a kids musical show “Bad Day and Black Frog Creek” in May. This seemed like a good idea at the time so we advertised and were stunned when what seemed to me like a million kids turned up to the civic hall to audition. Funnily enough the ‘bright spark’ dropped out soon after and the direction was left to founder member, Lorraine Watling. Despite the chaos and the headaches that ensued, the kids were great and worked really hard to produce a very lively, well received show. We had to follow this up with another kids show in November cos they kept pestering us - a one act double bill.

Black Frog006
26 strong cast of “Bad Day at Black Frog Creek” It’s shocking to think that they will all be in their 30’s now, probably with kids of their own!

On top of these shows we managed to pack in 2 more shows in the small hall ; Alan Bennett’s “Habeas Corpus” and an anthology called “Lovebites”, Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Nights Dream” in the main hall and another music hall. We were either all very keen or bordering on insanity - I’m not sure which! However, we now had an extremely healthy membership ranging from primary school kids to pensioners and were able to run productions side by side without too much trouble and were financially very stable. Not bad for a first year

The Eighties were definitely the boom years - not just for us but for other drama groups in the county. Such was the demand that Phoenix committee member and former Chairman, David Coates, helped to found the Oxfordshire Drama Network in 1986 to bring together groups from all over the county. We were one of the first groups to join and began participating in local drama festivals as well as hosting two of our own in 1986 and 1987.
We also did a lot of charity work during this period, raising money for Children in Need, British Heart Foundation, Didcot Toy Box to name but a few, and organised many charity performances and workshops for the Didcot Rotary Club, Gateway Club and local old people’s homes & pensioners clubs. Our biggest charity event was a performance of Aristophanes Greek Comedy “Lysistrata” on board HMS Ark Royal in 1987. We performed in an empty aircraft hanger and enjoyed refreshments in the Officers mess afterwards. I have no idea what the troops thought of it but we had great fun as did the Mayor of Didcot, John Flood, who came with us and collected the cheque for the British Heart Foundation.
In 1989 we undertook a major community project, The Lighthouse Keepers Lunch”. Phoenix member, Graham White, knew the author/illustrator husband and wife team, David and Rhonda Armitage who wrote a series of childrens books about a Lighthouse keeper. He persuaded them to let us improvise 3 of their books for a special day of workshops and performance. Local primary schools were involved in an art competition - the winner presented with an original painting from the book donated by artist David Armitage (whose paintings normally command thousands!). Another friend of Graham’s, folk singer & ex-generation game host, Isla St Clair, was drafted in to help with the music workshops.

Isla St Clair performing a rousing number with Phoenix members. Also pictured are Sandra Regan & Kevin Tarling

On the day there were 3 performances, each preceded by a music workshop run by Isla and an art workshop run by David and Rhonda. In addition to this there was a fantastic art and model exhibition around the hall by the local schools as well as bookstands offering childrens books.
Bob and his team surpassed themselves with an amazing set which included a huge free standing lighthouse, a boat that rowed across the hall and a plane that flew over the audience and parachuted out ice cream cartons for the kids to collect. The cast (including a very young looking Kevin Tarling in the title role and, I believe, his first acting experience with the group) and crew worked really hard to pull this off and the result was amazing and definitely one of the most successful events we have ever staged - not just financially but also for engaging with the local community.
By the end of the eighties we not only had a healthy bank balance and a strong adult membership but also a junior group set up for our younger members - Young Phoenix. This was to prove a bit of a mixed blessing.
After a boom there is always a bit of a lull and 1990 & 1991 proved to be difficult years. The membership was tired and many of the stalwart directors of the 1980’s decided to take break. The committee made a decision to pare down productions and run more workshops and social events instead. In hindsight this was probably a mistake as many people began to drift away........except the junior members.
Suddenly we became over-run with very keen 11-16 year olds and a dwindling adult membership. Many people began to view us as a junior group which inevitably put off prospective adult members and apart from panto we only managed to put on festival pieces and anthologies. A dramatisation of Thomas Hardy’s “Life’s Little Ironies” in May 1992 was our first major mid year production in nearly three years and was followed up in September with period comedy “WIld Oats” by John O’Keefe which was my first stab at directing something other than a panto or festival piece.
1993 built on the success of the previous two shows with our first bedroom farce since 1986, “Happy Birthday” by Marc Cameletti and Shakespeare’s “The Winters Tale” which saw the return of many of the original members.

“Happy Birthday”

Just when we thought we were out of the woods, 1994, 1995 & 1996 proved once again to be difficult years with Phoenix only able to produce 2 mid year shows during this time - “Educating Rita” (May 1994) with solid performances by Bettina Hughes and Andrew Down, and “Blithe Spirit” by Noel Coward, giving new members Matthew Sparling and Sheryl Davey something to cut their teeth on.

Blythe Spirit005
The seance scene in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit”
Luckily our pantos during this difficult time were still proving popular and managed to keep us afloat but we were finding it increasingly difficult to cast mid year shows and we were losing audience members who were not particularly interested in one act plays.
Then in 1997 momentum seemed to be regained. The year was kicked off with a cracking Pantomime directed by Bob, “Little Red Riding Hood” and followed by two really good mid year shows, the bedroom farce, “Shut your eyes and think of England” & the thriller “Something to Hide”.

Shut your eyes009
Cast of “Shut your eyes & think of England”
I think that “Shut your Eyes..” was certainly one of the funniest shows we’ve put on. The cast worked extremely well together - the majority of which were new members - and hounded me for extra rehearsals. There was a real buzz and there seemed no end to their enthusiasm - they certainly wore me out. The result was an extremely slick and hilarious show.
“Something to Hide” only required a small cast so with an influx of keen new members, it made sense to make an early start on a couple of festival pieces for the following year (particularly as we had also just made a successful bid for a lottery grant for a lavish production of “A midsummer nights dream” to be staged the following summer). Rebecca made her debut as a director with a well staged production of David Campton’s, “Permission to Cry” and I directed Ionesco’s piece from the Theatre of the Absurd, “The Lesson”. We staged these as a double bill in the autumn of 1997 at the Northbourne Centre, inviting comments from the audience at the end before taking them to the ODN festival the following June. Both were well received.

lesson 1
Emily being slapped about a bit by Keith. One of the many incidents of abuse she had to suffer during the performances!
We also took “The Lesson” to the Wallingford Festival and thanks to the stunning central performances of Keith Norman and Emily Maginess, we managed to win the best play award. It was a darkly comic, and at times, very shocking piece and the two of them worked really well together.
Apart from the festivals and a well received production of the lottery funded “A Midsummer Nights Dream”, we also hosted the ODN quiz in 1998. Andrew Down was an excellent quiz master and we wowed the rest of the groups with our use of technology - we were the first to use projected film clips and a computerised score sheet. It is still talked about at the ODN as being one of the most successful and better organised quiz nights.
The last ten years of the group, I feel have been pretty steady with none of the peaks and troughs of the early years, The membership has stablised and evolved, with more people trying their hands at directing.
1999 was a good year with 2 popular mid year shows as well as a festival piece - Spike Milligan’s “Pukoon” I had to try and acquire the rights for this particular show. I tracked down the publisher who gave me the telephone number of Mr Milligans agent - it turned out to be the number for a chinese laundry....hmmmm seems like Mr Milligan had the last laugh. Still, we didn’t pay and the adjudicator for the festival thought it was a great story.
Our pantos have always been the highlight of the Didcot calendar year and Robin Hood (panto 2000) was definitely one of the best pantos - great acting, great scenery, loads of laughs. What more could you ask?

Robin Hood004
Robin Hood’s Merry Men

Since 2000 we have arranged the audience in a more intimate setting around tables for many of our mid year shows. This has become almost our trademark and is often commented on in reviews of our shows. This arrangement works on two levels - it is more relaxing for the audience and also, if there is a poor audience showing, it is less intimidating for the cast.
The noughties have continued with many strong shows and performances, many of which have been really well attended (probably due to the fact that our publicity machine has improved considerably).
Since 2003 we have managed to produce not only 2 good mid year shows but also a return to doing some charity performances at the Northbourne Centre. Comedies including “Move over Mrs Markham” (May 2003), “Cash on Delivery” (May 2005 - well received by one local reviewer claiming “I laughed till I could hardly breath”) and Woody Allen’s, “Play it again Sam” (September 2004) went down very well. Helen Groves made her directorial debut with comedy “Love begins at 50” (September 2005) by local author, Raymond Hopkins. Mr Hopkins himself came along to one of the performances and thoroughly enjoyed himself. He donated his royalties to Multiple Sclerosis - so another good reason to feel good about this show.
2006 was a particularly good year with our rather unorthodox version of Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” attracting good audiences as well as appearing on the BBC’s Culture Show.
Bob Philbrook and crew did a fantastic job on the set - transforming the Civic Hall into a seventeenth century Inn, complete with stocks, which I’m sure the BBC presenter enjoyed being thrown into and abused (well his camera crew enjoyed it anyway!) Special mention to Rebecca Philbrook behind the bar who threw herself into the spirit of the occasion and scared many audience members with her blacked out teeth and also to Nicky Tarling who baked ‘fertility cake’ for the audience to enjoy. We also took a shortened version of this show to the ODN festival in May.
The show was followed in September by the fantastic “Allo, Allo”, directed by Kevin Tarling. The cast and crew were absolutely amazing and everyone looked like they were having brilliant time - even when the set started malfunctioning during one of the performances, in fact it added to the hilarity. It attracted huge audiences and went down an absolute storm (I would have liked to have shown a photograph but couldn’t find anything in the archives).

The cast of “The Odd Couple”

2007 built on the success of the previous year with a well reviewed panto, ‘Humpty Dumpty”, an excellent production of “The Odd Couple” (which deserved better audiences than it got) and a well received murder mystery “Nightmare” whose audiences thoroughly enjoyed guessing “whodunnit”!
2008 kicked off with a home written pantomime by Keith Norman, “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee” followed by another foray into Shakespeare - this time out of our comedy comfort zone, a production of Macbeth. This was extremely well attended which goes to prove those wrong who thought the people of Didcot wouldn’t enjoy Shakespearian tragedy! Back on familiar territory, a stage version of the popular tv series “Are you being served” proved to be a very popular september show and thoroughly enjoyable for all those involved both on stage an behind the scenes.
2009 was a very busy year - our panto “Once upon a time” won 3rd place in the ODN annual panto competition and members of the group helped to establish the first Didcot Drama Festival at the new Cornerstone Theatre in Didcot. With a new influx of members, we managed to enter not one play but four into the local drama festivals at Henley, Didcot, Abingdon & Wallingford, winning many prizes (including best play at Wallingford). The festival season was followed our first ‘proper’ musical - “Hellzapoppin” based on the Broadway show of the 1930’s and adapted by member, Andy Holme. It was surprising to find that we weren’t as tone deaf as we thought we were! 2009 was also overshadowed by the sad loss of one of our long term members and former Chairman, Kevin Tarling who had been a stalwart of the group for over 20 years. In his memory, members of the group helped put together a community event in November that he had planned with proceeds going to local charities - this is something that we hope to make a regular commitment to.
We have made a lively start to 2010 with an energetic production of “Aladdin” which showcased many of the talents of are younger members, and hosting this years ODN annual quiz. We are currently in rehearsal for the festival season but face many challenges this year due to the closure of the Civic Hall for refurbishment - our home for the last 27 years. However, with plans now taking shape for the year, I think we will find out that we are quite a resourceful bunch!