The Minack Theatre is built on a cliff overlooking Porthcurno Bay in the South West corner of Cornwall. It has a natural amphitheatre and was the inspiration and life’s work of one remarkable woman, Rowena Cade, whose family owned the land and who started performing plays there as a child with family and friends. By the 1960s the theatre retained much of its natural beauty with grass and bare ground on which to perform. The only dressing room was a lean-to on the edge of the cliff with only one loo for the whole company. Now it is very sophisticated with gardens, restaurant and a visitors’ centre.
In 1964 The Leicester Drama Society was invited to perform at the theatre. So, during the Easter week-end of that year, a small group of us ventured down to the wilds of Cornwall to meet with Tony Soper, the theatre manager, and to visit the site and decide what equipment would be necessary to enhance our production of Dark of the Moon, a powerful and tragic story of a witch-boy’s love for a human, Barbara Allen. The group consisted of, amongst others, Peter Gray, who grew up in Redruth and whose family still lived there, Geoff Sharpe, the director, Mike and Alison Russell and myself. As Geoff was Head of Lighting at the Little it was proposed that, together with props and furnishings, including a pedal organ, we would fill a heavy goods van with several lanterns and assorted lighting and sound equipment to augment the sparse facilities that the Minack offered.
Most of the company, approximately 50 in all, who made their way to the South West that August had never performed or mounted a show out of doors, let alone on the edge of a cliff, so we had to work hard and fast in order to be ready for the first performance on the Sunday evening. The actors learned how to retime entrances whilst staying in character at all times. This was particularly difficult when appearing stage left because the actors could be seen climbing down small rocks and along a rough path behind the action. Fortunately the crew were intrepid and the cast very experienced so were able to adapt very quickly: Tom Williams and Mary Angrave played Conjur Man and Woman; John Grahame was preacher Hagler (the play is set in the bible belt of 1930s mid America); I played Barbara Allen and Marin Caven a mesmerizing John-Boy; Polly Grahame and John Saunders played my mother and father, even though John was only six years older than me, and David Millhouse was my younger brother; Julia Meynell and Olwyn Millhouse played witches and spent a lot of the play on top of stone pillars creating trouble for the humans, a feat that was particularly uncomfortable during inclement weather. I doubt if ‘elf and safety’ would countenance such a stunt now!
We all worked from Saturday lunchtime through the evening and into the night and it was after 2am on Sunday morning before we made our weary way to our beds. Because it was mid August the local infants/junior school at Sennen was made available for the whole company – men in one classroom and women in another – where we slept on desks, under desks on rolled mattresses and, if you were rich, camp beds. Most of us were happy with this arrangement except for Pol and John Grahame, the only married couple, plus some of the men who couldn’t get to sleep because Geoff Sharpe could snore for England.
Working at the Minack was both awe-inspiring and frustrating; sun when moonlight was called for, rain instead of sun, winds and the sound of the Zorn, an inlet between the rocks below the theatre, that made being heard difficult when the sea was rough. Best and worst of all was facing an audience that looked out over beautiful scenery – we could always gauge how well the performance was going by how many people were gazing out over our heads!
Looking back over nearly 45 years, I still regards that first year as one of the most wonderful experiences of my theatrical life. Imagine, if you will, being young and healthy, joining with friends to enjoy a hobby you love in the most stunning and romantic setting. Indeed it was so romantic that it resulted in three marriages; my own to Hugh Cooke, who was Peter Gray’s flat mate, Maureen Gandy to John Saunders and Pam Patrick to Ian Rogers.
The LDS performed many times in the following years at the Minack and I expect some of those performances were more accomplished but none, I know, were better received or as exciting as Dark of the Moon in 1964.