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Martins Bank Society of the Arts – Drama Section in: Death Takes a Holiday

by Alberto Casella (English Version by Walter Ferris)

Staged: 13 and 14 December 1948 at the Crane Hall Theatre Liverpool

The Crane Hall, also known as Crane Theatre, or THE Crane Theatre, and later as the Neptune Theatre and the Epstein Theatre becomes a favourite performance venue for the Drama Section of the Society of the Arts. Indeed the music section, and later the Argosy players and the Operatic Society will all make regular use of this compact friendly little theatre in Hanover Street, not too far at all from Martins Bank’s Heywoods Branch.  The review below of “Death Takes a Holiday” does not mince words when it comes to opinions about whther the Drama Section was good enough to perform it! We have seen from the reviews of the Bank’s other Am Dram and Operatic Productions, that critiques are to the point, often quite cutting and opinionated, and on those occasions which warrant delivery of large bouquets, quite fair too!  After all, never-ending gushing praise for everything would not fairly represent the work involved in staging a play. The subject matter of this Winter 1948 offering from the Drama Section, is curious to say the least, and several films including “Meet joe Black” have also tackled the idea that Death him/herself can walk amongst the living…

For their first production at Crane Hall, Liverpool, the choice of the Society fell upon “Death Takes a Holiday” by Alberto Casella (English version by Walter Ferris). The play was presented for two performances, on December 13th and 14th, 1948. The theme of the play is that Death decides to cease work and come to Earth in human guise for a three days' holiday in order to try to experience something of human joys and sorrows. His plans and calculations are upset by the fact that he falls in love with Grazia, daughter of the Princess of San Luca. It would be hard to find a more difficult play for amateurs to tackle because, for the sustentation of the intensity of the drama a very high standard of acting is called for, not only from the principals but from everyone in the cast.

William Brookes Colin Skelton Nora Owen Ann Smellie Joan Hall D E Brewis Betty Jackson Howell Jones Maureen Dempster

Kenneth C Batten Frances Fieldsend Reginald W Bywell – from the personal collection Colin d’Arcy Skelton

This was too much to hope for in a company which contained amateurs, some of whom were appearing for the first time. Furthermore, whether amateurs like it or not. for some reason the majority of people prefer to have a good laugh at an amateur show. The conclusions to be drawn from this production, therefore, are, quite baldly:— 1. It was not, on the whole, a popular choice. 2. Well done though it undoubtedly was, some of the actors did not measure up to the standard required for the intensity of the drama. Having said that, we can quite unreservedly give full marks to Sydney Rimmer as the Prince: to Betty Jackson as Grazia; to Ken Batten as Lambert, Duke of Catolica; and to Bill Brookes as Baron Cesarea.

S N Rimmer and Betty Jackson

S N Rimmer and K C Batten

Sydney Rimmer has a very fine speaking voice and an excellent stage presence. His sense of the dramatic was admirably suited to the portrayal of the difficult role of Death, and the many fine lines of his part provided full scope for his histrionic talent. To say that Betty Jackson interpreted her part as Death’s chosen one with a beauty which had in it something not of this world is just the simple truth. Her loveliness was ethereal, almost too fragile to be material, and one had the feeling before even the gloomy guest appeared that she was already in part familiar with worlds as yet unknown to the rest of us. Ken Batten as the Duke of Catolica, holder of the dread secret of the visitor's real identity. entered so much into his part that the trembling of his hands and the perspiration on his brow was genuine, and he carried his audience with him by the unconscious sincerity of his portrayal. Bill Brookes as Baron Cesarea, earned and received his applause at each of his appearances. It was a character part, delightfully played, and he portrayed the “gay old dog” with a debonair gallantry which won all hearts. Frances Fieldsend played the part of the Duchess of Catolica.

Joan Hall and William Brookes

She put up a very good act, although in pain at both performances owing to an abscess in her ear. It was very sporting of her to go through with it. The part of Corrado, son of the Duke and Duchess of Catolica, was taken by Howell Jones. He did it admirably and conveyed his feeling of helplessness in the face of the supernatural so well that one felt some annoyance that some of the other characters remained comparatively unperturbed. This was where the inexperience of some of the players was felt. Although Rhoda and Eric Fenton, guests of the Duke, played by Nora Owen and D. E. Brewis, showed distress, it was a detached kind of emotion. Likewise Ann Smellie as Alda Cesarea seemed insufficiently shocked when she discovered that the person making love to her was Death himself. And Joan Hall, as Grazia’s mother, did not display the degree of grief which the situation called for upon her realisation that Death had claimed her daughter. More grief would have vastly improved the interpretation. Reg. W. Bywell played the part of Major Whitred, the Foreign Legionnaire. Why wasn't he made up to look like Beau Geste ? The debonair legionary who had flirted with death was not suggested by the heavy moustache and elderly make-up. Fedele, the manservant, played by Colin Skelton, was good, and it was a pity his part was so small.

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Likewise Maureen Dempster in the role of Cora, the maid, had little scope for her undoubted talent. It was typical of her enthusiasm that she agreed to take this tiny role some time after production had commenced. Owing to the Euston strike the costumes failed to arrive and on the morning of the production it became necessary for Sheila Boote to go to Manchester to get another set. Her work, with that of E. G. Shaw as Stage Managers was deserving of the highest praise. It is also appropriate to mention Kathleen Horsburgh and Miss A. J. Smith (“Smithy”) whose work with refreshments during rehearsals at the theatre and on the nights of the performances was untiring. Kathleen also acted as wardrobe mistress.



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