Worthing Musical Comedy Society is a voluntary group that sets out to provide and promote affordable quality musical entertainment for the enjoyment and education of the general public and fulfilment of our members. WMCS was formed in 1935 and has been soldiering on ever since. Their latest musical performance, Guys and Dolls, will be at the Connaught Theatre from Tuesday 3 May 2022 till Saturday 7 May 2022 and is set to be a real showstopper!
When making plans to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee year, Worthing Musical Comedy Society President, Ruth Roberts, realised that it was also 70 years since she first set foot on the Worthing Musical Comedy Stage. Board member and TV personality, Amy Hart, went to meet with Ruth and ask her to talk about her history with the society and musical theatre.
“As I sit in the lounge of WMCS president Ruth Roberts, looking at the walls adorned with family photographs, it’s amazing to think that Am Dram started it all. Ruth, 88, met her husband Roy when she was invited to join WMCS for their 1952 production of Sunny and celebrates her own Diamond Jubilee this year (I’ve always called her our Queen!) “I was terribly shy at the time” she recalls “and I was invited to do two solos in the show. I didn’t want to do it, but I did, which started a 70 year journey with the society.”
Since Ruth joined WMCS at the age of 18, things have changed a lot. “Rehearsals were every Monday and Friday and you never missed one, whether you were needed or not. Even when the local press, hospital and mayor’s ball were on, you went to rehearsals, sped home, got changed and arrived late! It was a real hobby, everyone was there because they loved both performing and also the social side of things.”
WMCS has often been referred to as a family, back in the early days this was even more correct! “It really was one big family made of lots of local families. So many couples met at the society and went on to have children who would then appear in shows.” This is how it has been for the formidable Roberts family with both Ruth and Roy playing a multitude of parts both opposite each other (beginning with Mrs Molloy and Cornelius Hackle in Hello Dolly) as well as serving on the board, Roy as chairman and Ruth was wardrobe mistress for a number of years before they both became President. Later their children Andrew and Lisa plus daughter in law Tandy became active members of the society playing lead roles, serving on the committee, being chairman and also choreographing and directing. All 5 grandchildren have also been involved in the society!
The biggest contribution to the society the family have made was probably Roy, along with late society stalwart Andrew Taylor, securing their our very own premises. “We used to rehearse all over the place-basically wherever would have us. Church halls, leisure centres, anywhere, including in a function room nearby until we happened to book 42nd Street around the time they installed a new floor and they said we couldn’t tap on it! Roy started looking for premises shortly after that. When we secured “2a The Drive” as our new home, we were working towards our production of Barnum so, as the song goes, members of the public sponsored individual bricks “one brick at a time” so we could get the place finished!”
Some of the “Kodak moments” of the last 70 years include the BBC coming to film a documentary about the society’s production of “Charlie Girl” “We were all quite worried because we wouldn’t have any control over the edit but the programme was brilliant and was a fantastic experience.” Dancing the original Agnes De Mille choreography when the society performed Oklahoma for the first time. Doing two shows at “The Plaza” included 1967’s record breaking production of Camelot being seen by 10,050 people and taking a whopping, wait for it, £3,800!! “The only downside” says Ruth “was that the Plaza had no box office, so we had to man that ourselves as well as perform!”
With such a well equipped team now, self sufficiency is a thing of the past but Ruth remembers it well. “We altered our own costumes, did our own make up. We would cycle down to the theatre with our costumes over the handlebars as very few people had cars! Back then everyone got stuck in and helped. At one stage the society was running low on funds so every member was given £1 to make money with. People held coffee mornings, jumble sales and the society lived to see another day!”
Amateur theatre has changed a lot over the last 70 years, although the WMCS standards are much higher now, with a variety of different production teams “We used to have the same Director, although he was called a producer, and choreographer for many, many years, so you could predict who would probably be cast each time.” Some of the old customs have changed “whether or not we got a principal role, we would all do every show no matter how much chorus work there was available because we loved it! Not many people went off to university in those days so we never lost people at 18. Most of our reviews said there were too many people on stage!”
When there were very limited television options, local theatre was the hottest ticket in town. Ruth recalls “Tickets were so sought after, each member was limited to 4 tickets for the closing night of the run. When public booking opened people would queue down the stairs at the Pier to get the best seats.” Competition was a big factor back then though. Currently Worthing has two active societies, but this used to be a whopping 7 groups all producing two productions a year. “It was sad because it split the talent, split the audiences and everything was more competitive. More thought had to go in to show selection and it was all very top secret so someone else didn’t steal your idea!”
Ruth sums up the changes in her 70 years as “years ago, aside from the performing side, WMCS really was a social event, whereas now it has to be run like a business with such large sums of money involved [WMCS current budgets average at 70k], plus the fact there are so many other things for people to take part in!”
We are so lucky to have Ruth as she really is The Queen of WMCS!
As a postscript it appears that things go round in full circles, the dance teacher who trained Ruth leading to her first appearance with WMCS was Wendy Merson whose daughter, Mandy Chapman is now directing and choreographing their latest production of Guys and Dolls.