Edinburgh People’s Theatre celebrate 70 years

Move Over Mrs Markham, 2008. Picture: Comp
Move Over Mrs Markham, 2008. Picture: Comp
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EVENING News Drama Award-winners Edinburgh People’s Theatre celebrate an impressive milestone in 2013 - it was 70 years ago that the then fledgling club tentatively trod the boards for the first time.

Today EPT, as the company is universally known, is one of the largest amateur drama groups in Scotland, drawing members of all ages and from all walks of life. Back in 1943 it was quite different.

Edinburgh People's Theatre production of Serious Charge at the Church Hill theatre in April 1966.

Edinburgh People's Theatre production of Serious Charge at the Church Hill theatre in April 1966.

“Edinburgh People’s Theatre now has membership just short of 100 and is open to all members of the community,” says club president Irene Beaver, herself a member since 1967.

“The club was started by Andrew P Wilson, formerly of The Abbey Theatre in Dublin and reckoned to be a greater talent than the playwright Sean O’Casey.”

That first year, EPT staged three plays: My Daughter Tanya, There Was A Lad and, appropriately, The House That Fritz Blitzed.

“It actually began as a club for workers in reserved occupations and for wounded servicemen and women,” reveals Irene. “In the beginning it was a ‘Labour’ concern, with the Lord Provost of Prestonpans and directors from the Boards of St Cuthbert’s Co-operative Association and Leith Provident on the committee.”

Laughing, she reveals, “I discovered recently that Jack Moffat, the vice president at the beginning, was later known to me in his role as president of St Cuthbert’s when my sister and I were child mannequins in the store’s very popular mannequin parades in the 1950s.”

Very posh affairs, the parades were held in the Central Methodist Halls on Lothian Road, where Irene would model the latest fashions for female customers accompanied by a musical trio, an opera singer and the Betty Brandon Dancers. Betty would later become EPT’s choreographer.

“I think that’s where my love of performing started,” says Irene.

Over the year’s EPT’s blue on white emblem has become a well known site in the city, but while Morningside’s Church Hill Theatre is now very much the company’s home, the badge depicts EPT’s original base, the courtyard entrance to the Little Theatre in the Pleasance, where all the club’s early productions took place.

Those early productions boasted some interesting names, including actor Ian Richardson, best known for the BBC political drama House Of Cards; Kathryn Robinson, formerly of the Royal Shakespeare Company; James Dinsmore, presently starring in London’s West End and John Ramage, who played Stanley Baxter’s side-kick in the King’s pantos of the 70s.

Performing four or five full-length plays a year, audiences have enjoyed EPT’s takes on such classics as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Rivals as well as many Agatha Christie crowd-pleasers, their trademark Scots comedies and annual pantomimes.

The club also regularly competes in Scottish Community Drama Association (SCDA) play festivals, often coming home with trophies to display.

In 2007, EPT’s Fringe production of The Holy Terror, saw them come runner-up in the Evening News Drama Awards (ENDAs). Four years later they went one better, beating the competition to the ENDA Capital Spirit Award for another of their Scottish comedies, The Chippit Chantie. “We were thrilled to win it because it was our paper that was presenting it, and it’s great to get something from your own,” says Irene.

By the end of this year, members of EPT will have appeared in a staggering 353 plays, and 2013 is proving to be as busy a year as any for the company.

“Our first main production this year was James Scotland’s adaptation of Sir Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore in March,” says Irene. “Sir Compton was our patron for many years and attended the world premiere of this play, which we presented in 1966.

“Because of the connection, we considered it fitting that we should recreate Whisky Galore this year.

“Running concurrently with rehearsals for Whisky Galore was our entry for the Scottish Community Drama Awards, One-Act Play Festival, at which we presented Ritual For Dolls, by George MacEwan Green.”

This month, the company return to the Church Hill Theatre in Liz Lochhead’s Mary, Queen of Scots, Got Her Head Chopped Off, but their anniversary celebrations are by no means over when the curtain falls on that production.

“Our Festival Fringe offering is Hatches, Matches and Dispatches, by Alan Cochrane, a life member of EPT until his sad death late last year,” says Irene. “And we are proud to be the longest serving group on the Fringe.”

Two more productions complete EPT’s landmark celebration, Tony Roper’s The Steamie and their annual pantomime, which will be The Sleeping Beauty, by David Swan, another member of the club until his death some years ago.

“We also have an exhibition of club memorabilia during our productions and plan on having a special reception for our patrons as well as an anniversary dinner in the Minto Hotel tomorrow, when many of our former members and friends will join us in celebration of the past 70 years.”