1968 Desert Song

Musical Triumph out of adversity

Witham Musical and Amateur Operatic Society faced a crisis shortly before their production, “The Desert Song" opened at the Public Hall, this week.
A parcel containing some of the props and costumes went astray on British Railways and only a spot of quick-thinking saved the situation.
Fourteen "dummy" rifles which were urgently required were obtained from
Braintree High School. They had been rusting away ln a cellar for a number of years and had to be hastily cleaned. The replacement of the Eastern and Spanish costumes posed the biggest problem; but the Society got away with it by improvising and "fudging" other dresses,
The Society undoubtedly picked a winner in “The Desert Song," and the production was worthy of some professionals. The show touched a remarkably high standard and was a triumph for producer David Walker. For such a small community, the Witham society can boast a wealth of talent.
Derek Collins, in the dual role of Pierre Birabeau and The Red Shadow, and Pauline Hanford as Margot Bonvalet turned in first rate performances. Their singing was out or the top drawer. The comedy was provided in fine fashion by Roger Bentall, portraying the misfortune-prone Benjamin Kidd.
The delightful scenery drew gasps of approval from the audience and, matched by the splendidness of the costumes created an explosion of colour,
"House full” notices were displayed on Monday, the opening night of the six-day show, and advance bookings indicate that if will he a “sell out" for the remaining performances.

Chronicle Review

EVEN in this age of disillusion, it seems that there is still a place for romance in dramatic entertainment. Certainly, full houses in Witham this week suggest that “The Desert Song” has not lost its magic.

At Witham, Pauline Hanford was a pretty French heroine of a very English kind, with a good soprano voice. Some of her top notes were inaccurate on Tuesday, but she spoke her lines with variety and conviction, and was thoroughly at home in the conventions of this sort of part. The Red Shadow had neither the stature nor the satanic good looks to arouse the delicious trepidation she should have felt. But Derek Collins gave a very accomplished performance, nevertheless. In the "silly ass part" of Benny, Roger Bentall amused himself and us very much. Judy Ryder was splendid as Susan, his unappreciated girlfriend, while in the harem scene, Pat Harris was in admirable voice and fooling as Clementina.

Among the male singers, Cyril Morrissey was outstanding as the Moroccan second-in-command, rather charmingly called Sid; Don Walford used a fine bass voice as Ali Ben Ali; and Peter Groom was impressively reminiscent of James Robertson Justice. As the female serpent, Azuri, Sally Carpenter was sinuous and spiteful.

Both male and female chorus, trained by Jack Wilsher, gave us some well-disciplined singing and the soldiers’ drill, though it would have caused apoplexy al Caterham, was acceptable in Morocco.
lt all made a melodious entertainment, enjoyable whether you took it straight or added a pinch of salt. David Walker and his team have a well-deserved success on their hands.


Weekly News Review


SIGMUND ROMBERG'S " The Desert Song " has taken on a new lease of life recently and it is not difficult to see why, for it has tunes that course through your veins and set your feet a-tapping, a warmly romantic story which, if wildly improbable, is in another world from Vietnam and the other horrors of the Sixties,
But its staging must contain an element of physical excitement, and it is that quality that I find lacking in the Witham Musical and Amateur Operatic Society's presentation, which opened its week's run in the Public Hall on Monday, with the “House full " boards up outside.

Producer David Walker, faced with a smallish stage to work on, has decided to playit safe with solid rather than spectacular movement, and entrances and exits are made with insufficient swagger. -
But having voiced this grumble, let me add that there is much to enjoy at the ‘Public Hall this week. Derek Collins. in the leading role of the Red Shadow, has a personality that enables him to put over a number like ‘One Alone‘ with conviction even though his singing voice is lighter than his speaking one.


But the two best performances are those of Pauline Hanford, as Margot, who sings and acts with a captivating charm and simplicity that tugs at the heart strings, and Roger Bentall in the basically not very funny role of a journalist to whom accuracy is of second Importance to sensationalism. Mr. Bentall, by the most careful attention to his lines and their timing, together with a wealth of expressive facial and bodily gestures, obtains a lot of well-deserved laughter and his dance with Clementina (Pat Harris) is the highlight of the show.

He is given good support, too, by Judy Ryder, as Susan, and the speaking voice of Peter Groom, as Hassi, and the singing and speaking voice of Don Walford, as Ali-Ben-Ali, are impressive.
On Monday night the women’s chorus sang better than the men's, although first night nerves affected bath group’s intonation. The musical direction is by Cecil Barker. Regretfully, because I am a fan of “The Desert Song" and wish more Societies would stage it, I can only sum up this production as good average.


BWT Review

0n the crest of a wave

HIGH ON the crest of the wave rides Witham Operatic Society this week. An intensely popular show; a full company of keen and eager performers; fine dresses, and improved facilities at the Public Hall- which gives their team of backstage workers full scope to present a colour fully lit spectacle.

“The Desert Song” wears and creaks a bit in the comedy department. Roger Bentall, as Benny, found his portfolio full of vintage jokes with obscure references to Elinor Glyn and “It” but, as many of the audience greeted these with the fervour reserved for very old friends, he made a hit in his new role as principal comic. He had two charming assistants, Judy Ryder, whom we have often admired in similar "soubrette parts, and Pat Harris who literally swept him off his feet.There were lashings of pretty girls, especially in the harem presided over by Don Walford whose sonorous voice, was, once again, a feature of the show. The men's chorus, too, sang splendidly, with Cyril Morrissey's high tenor to add a touch of brilliance.

Character actors Peter (Sacre Bleu) Groom and Edward Maltby were sound and effective in all they did, and Sally Carpenter brought a touch of the mysterious East to her sinuous Azuri. Everyone's instant heroine, blonde, petite Mrs. Hanford cheerfully submitted once again to take part in her annual “Perils of Pauline" - she is a leading lady any society might envy.

Derek Collins gave a most polished performance in the dual roles of Pierre Birabeau and the Red Shadow. Perhaps the latter part was watered down a shade as the promise of the programme that his wooing “with all the fierce ardour associated with wild, semi-barbarous Sheikhs" did not quite materialise, much to our disappointment.

Tall and good looking, Donald Walker obviously deserved his promotion from the chorus by his performance as Captain Paul Fontaine, and minor parts were well played by Grace Rose, Sheila Moore, Jack Wilsher and Geoffrey Moore.

Some of the smaller scenes were not very well rounded off but generally speaking David Walker's production was smooth and professional while Cecil Barker and his merry men, together with Lucy Croxall, dealt faithfully with the lilting music.

Gilbert Sutcliffe.