Barry Band: St Annes’ Ashton Theatre and the lady who could carry an entire production”

Ashton Pavilion Theatre, St Annes. 1970's pic view
Ashton Pavilion Theatre, St Annes. 1970's pic view

A couple of theatre programmes came my way and revived memories of those big star plays that appeared at the Ashton Theatre, St Annes, in the 1970s.

The Ashton’s starry years ended when it was destroyed by fire in September 1977, but the Ashton Theatregoers Society is still going strong, with members enjoying trips to shows across the north west.

Eric Sykes playing golf.

Eric Sykes playing golf.

The theatre programmes in question are for the summer of 1971, and what an amazing line-up of plays and players the Ashton had. I’ll scatter a few names.

There were two visits by Peggy Mount in her role of the dynamic Emma Hornet in Sailor Beware.

Richard Todd appeared twice during the season, in The Winslow Boy and The Grass Is Greener.

Kathleen Harrison and Richard Murdoch also made two visits, in Goodnight Mrs Puffin and All for Mary.

Gladys Cooper

Gladys Cooper

Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards brought their freewheeling comedy Big Bad Mouse and Glynis Johns was in The Marquise.

There was a sad event in the theatre’s season of plays.

Dame Gladys Cooper was to have appeared as Mrs St Maugham in Enid Bagnold’s classic play The Chalk Garden, which she had premiered in New York in 1956.

The play opened on September 20 at the Ashton but Dame Gladys, aged 82, was ill and unable to travel.

This was so ironic because playgoers that week read the notes she herself had penned for the programme.

She wrote: “Who cares how old I am? Who cares how long ago it was when I first played Peter Pan?

“Why do theatre programmes concentrate on the past?

“This is the performance that matters... now you’re here and waiting for the curtain to rise.

“The air is promise-crammed. This is what keeps you and me coming and of course going, I hope.”

The Gazette reported that the management had only a few hours notice that Dame Gladys had a chill.

A supporting actress in the play, Jacqueline Maude, saved the show by stepping into the star’s role, with success.

Sadly, Dame Gladys, after a truly illustrious career, died two weeks later from pneumonia.

I summed up her career in Blackpool’s Century of Stars (2002) with: “For 10 years Gladys Cooper was a star of picture postcards and light stage productions; for 20 years she achieved success as an actress and (West End) actor-manager; and for another 20 years she was the archetypal English lady in Hollywood films.” When she appeared at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre in February, 1953, in Noel Coward’s Relative Values, a Gazette reviewer said she proved she could carry an entire production in her shoulders. Not very complimentary to Sir Noel, but a true measure of the lady’s talent!