Society History

Learn more about our history.
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Though not quite the oldest amateur theatrical society in the country (debate rages over who is!) TWODS’ history compares impressively with our very few contemporaries. Formed in 1889 as the Tunbridge Wells Dramatic and Musical Society, our forebear’s first production was of two plays, “A Blighted Being” and “My Preserver”, which were performed on a stage built by the actors themselves at the Gymnasium in Calverley Road. A large variety of straight plays followed at The Great Hall whilst the Tunbridge Wells Operatic Society, formed in 1890, began staging more musical shows at that same venue. One of the earliest productions was Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”, a show that has been revisited no less than six times during the society’s long history.

Another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, “The Mikado”, was presented in 1904 when the Dramatic and Musical Society found a new home at the newly-built Opera House and “The Gondoliers” became the first performance credited to Tunbridge Wells Operatic and Dramatic Society after the two groups merged in 1911. The Society’s activities were understandably interrupted by The First World War but by 1922 they had returned with “The Mikado” and presented “Iolanthe” and “The Geisha” the following year. This musical comedy by Sidney Jones, Owen Hall, and Harry Greenbank was an extremely popular show at the time having enjoyed the second longest run of any musical at Daly’s Theatre in London’s West End.

The Opera House, Tunbridge Wells

With the exception of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, many of the productions staged by the Society in these years will be largely unknown to modern theatre-goers. They were, though, well-loved at the time and had long professional runs in London and on Broadway before being a popular choice for amateur groups. “Florodora”, “Miss Hook Of Holland”, “The Quaker Girl”, “The Duchess of Dantzig”, “The Arcadians”, “The Belle of New York”, and “San Toy” all represented the most modern of stage shows when they were staged by the Society.

To understand the role of theatre in 1922, one has to consider the atmosphere of the period. Only four years earlier the country had come through its most bloody war when tens of thousands of British soldiers had lost their lives. There was radio but no television. In fact, it was in 1922 that the BBC was licensed to produce the first regular radio broadcasts. On a more fundamental level, people made their own entertainment in this era and visiting the theatre was very much an outing. Even until the 1950s and 60s, Saturday night audiences at amateur, as well as professional, shows would wear evening dress, the women adorned with furs and jewellery. Many would come just to watch the audiences go into the show and this was no less the case with the Operatic Society. To actually be part of the entertainers on stage was an honour and a privilege.

Throughout this period the society continued to raise funds for local charities and between 1922 and 1929 alone handed over £645. The equivalent of nearly £30,000 in modern terms, the beneficiaries included the General, Homeopathic, Eye & Ear Hospitals, the District Nursing Association, the Maternity Home, the Children’s Convalescent Home, the General Hospital Building Fund, the Open-Air School for Delicate Children of Tunbridge Wells, the Hurstleigh Toddlers, and the Invalid Children’s Aid. Twenty years before the founding of the National Health Service, these donations must have been well received. 1933’s chosen charity, The League Of Mercy, benefitted to the princely sum of £50, which is in excess of £3,500 in modern terms. Even way back in 1904 it was recorded that the Society had already presented £500 to various local charities.

Perchance to Dream, 1965

In June 1939, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Tunbridge Wells as a borough and the opening of the Assembly Hall, the Society was invited to stage “The Pirates of Penzance” as the first show at this new venue. When war broke out once again, local societies could not function normally but TWODS certainly played its part in the war effort. Many of the leading members of the Society attached themselves to ENSA and performed in concert parties for the troops. The Society picked up when it left off when war ended, though, and staged Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” at the end of 1945 with all the profits donated to the Homeopathic Hospital.

Miss Hook of Holland, 1946

“The Gondoliers” was also the show chosen to mark the Society’s permanent move from The Opera House to the Assembly Hall in 1967. The Tunbridge Wells landmark had been the Society’s home for 63 years and hosted 85 of our productions but the building had primarily been a cinema for more than thirty years. The cinema had become increasingly uneconomic, though, and its owners planned to turn the venue into a bingo hall which would make it impossible to convert back into a theatre for TWODS productions. There were negotiations involving the Society to buy the venue but the required £48,000 could not be raised and the campaign to prevent the change of use was ultimately unsuccessful. The eventual conversion was further delayed by a dispute with the council but, by that time, TWODS had a new home: the Assembly Hall theatre. Fifty-four years later, we are very happy to still be there twice a year.

The Vagabond King, 1959

No-one can doubt the Society’s fondness for Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas but the works of Rodgers & Hammerstein have also been performed with great regularity. To date, “Oklahoma!” has been staged on five occasions, “Carousel” four times, “The King And I” and “The Sound of Music” three times each and “South Pacific” twice. Lerner & Lowe’s musicals have also proved popular with five productions of “My Fair Lady” over the years, three of “Brigadoon”, two of “Camelot”, and a 1975 staging of “Paint Your Wagon”. Naturally, “Oliver!” and “Guys & Dolls” have also featured repeatedly in the Society’s repertoire whilst “The Merry Widow” and “Die Fledermaus” show that we have not forgotten our operatic roots.

Whilst celebrating its history, TWODS has always looked for something ‘new’ to present to Tunbridge Wells’ audiences. In 1961, the Society performed the South East premier of a new show called “The Boy Friend” and in 1997 presented the South East premier of the newly-released production of “Me & My Girl” just four years after the show ended its 3,303 performance-run at London’s Adelphi Theatre. We were proud to present “Mack & Mabel”, newly-released for the amateur stage, in November 2000 and performed the South East premier of “Evita” in 2002.

Orpheus in the Underworld, 1982

Complete list of shows:

1889    A Blighted Being and My Preserver

1890    The Pirates Of Penzance

1891    Dorothy

1892    H.M.S. Pinafore, Fra Diavolo, Penelope and Cavalleria Rusticana

1893    Les Cloches De Corneville

1894    Yeomen Of The Guard and The Sorcerer

1895    The Bohemian Girl

1896    Cavalleria Rusticana

1897    Liberty Hall

1898    Ipsithilla, The Money Spinner and Les Cloches De Corneville

1899    Strafford

1900    Diplomacy, The Magistrate and The Miser’s Daughter

1901    The School For Scandal

1902    The Private Secretary and The Two Roses

1903    The Pickpocket and Paul’s Return

1904    The Mikado

1910    The Women Of Westminster

1911    Patience and The Gondoliers

1912    The Moon Of Carthage

1913    Iolanthe

1922    The Mikado

1923    Iolanthe and The Geisha

1924    The Gondoliers, Veronique and Patience

1925    Floradora and Miss Hook Of Holland

1926    The Rebel Maid and A Country Girl

1927    The Quaker Girl

1928    Our Miss Gibbs and The Toreador

1929    The Duchess Of Dantzig and The Arcadians

1930    Princess Charming and The Belle Of New York

1931    San Toy

1932    The High Road and H.M.S. Pinafore

1933    The Desert Song and The Middle Watch

1934    Rose Marie

1935    Rio Rita and Maid Of The Mountains

1936    Mr. Cinders and The Desert Song

1937    Hit The Deck and The Vagabond King

1938    Chu Chin Chow and Sunny

1939    Good-Night Vienna and The Pirates Of Penzance

1940    No! No! Nanette

1942    The Middle Watch

1945    The Gondoliers

1946    Miss Hook Of Holland and Princess Charming

1947    Katinka and The Girl Friend

1948    The Mikado and Tom Jones

1949    Pride And Prejudice, Ruddigore and Rose Marie

1950    The Rivals, Merrie England and The Student Prince

1951    Quality Street, Iolanthe, Merrie England and Bless The Bride

1952    This Happy Breed, Trial By Jury, H.M.S. Pinafore and The New Moon

1953    And So To Bed, The Yeoman Of The Guard and The Desert Song

1954    The Pirates of Penzance and Bitter Sweet

1955    The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Gondoliers and Brigadoon

1956    Major Barbara, The Mikado and Oklahoma!

1957    Princess Ida and The Dancing Years

1958    Ruddigore and Annie Get Your Gun

1959    Bonaventure, The Vagabond King and The Student Prince

1960    Bell, Book and Candle

1960    Iolanthe and Call Me Madam

1961    The Boy Friend and The Merry Widow

1962    Patience and Chu Chin Chow

1963    Waltz Time and Carousel

1964    The Mikado and South Pacific

1965    The King And I and Perchance to Dream

1966    Trial By Jury, H.M.S. Pinafore and Song of Norway

1967    The Gondoliers and Show Boat

1968    Kismet and Kiss Me Kate

1969    Oklahoma! and The Yeoman Of The Guard

1970    No, No, Nanette and Camelot

1971    Iolanthe and My Fair Lady

1972    The Sound Of Music and King’s Rhapsody

1973    The Pirates Of Penzance, Trial By Jury and Oliver!

1974    Die Fledermaus and Love From Judy

1975    The Merry Widow and Paint Your Wagon

1976    The Mikado and My Fair Lady

1977    Merrie England, Jubilee Showtime and The King And I

1978    Ruddigore and Bitter Sweet

1979    Robert And Elizabeth and White Horse Inn

1980    The Gondoliers and The Sound Of Music

1981    The Yeomen Of The Guard and Rose Marie

1982    Oliver! and Orpheus In The Underworld

1983    Patience and Carousel

1984    Kiss Me Kate, No! No! Nanette and The Bartered Bride

1985    Fiddler On The Roof, (The Life And Crimes Of) Al Capone and Christopher Columbus

1986    Iolanthe and Oklahoma!

1987    The Mikado and Guys and Dolls

1988    The Pirates Of Penzance, Trial By Jury and The King and I

1989    The Merry Widow, Centenary Serenade and The Gondoliers

1990    Half A Sixpence and Mame

1991    Ruddigore and Die Fledermaus

1992    West Side Story and Showtime A-Z

1993    Oliver! and Carmen

1994    Hello Dolly and My Fair Lady

1995    Brigadoon and Showtime A-Z

1996    Broadway Pirates and Orpheus In The Underworld

1997    Me & My Girl and Kiss Me Kate

1998    Fiddler On The Roof and Show Boat

1999    Camelot and The Merry Widow

2000    Carousel and Mack & Mabel

2001    The Mikado and Mad About Musicals

2002    Guys And Dolls and Evita

2003    Oklahoma! and Die Fledermaus

2004    Oliver! and Me & My Girl

2005    South Pacific and Mad About Musicals

2006    The Gondoliers and My Fair Lady

2007    Hello Dolly and The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas

2008    Anything Goes and Crazy For You

2009    Fiddler On The Roof and Kiss Me Kate

2010    Singin’ In The Rain, G & S Gala and Half A Sixpence

2011    Jesus Christ Superstar and Brigadoon

2012    42nd Street and Broadway Pirates

2013    The Sound Of Music and Oklahoma!

2014    Oliver! and The Merry Widow

2015    Sister Act and Sunset Boulevard

2016    Carousel and Guys And Dolls

2017    Annie Get Your Gun and My Fair Lady

2018    Grease and Hello Dolly

2019    Legally Blonde and Made In Dagenham