As a member of the Oxford Union Dramatic Society, Joseph Cyril Walker acted and produced plays, when he wasn’t painting the scenery. Back home in his village of Averham, pronounced ‘Airam’, he would put on performances at the local school hall, at first writing the librettos himself and playing the organ – his family making up the cast – before he had the idea of building a theatre.
In 1907 Walker had succeeded his father as Rector of Averham but it didn’t hold him back, and it was in the rectory gardens that local carpenter Robert Lee and a group of volunteers built his wooden 150-seater Robin Hood Opera House which opened in 1913. For one month in the summer, and one in the winter, the theatre played to appreciative audiences that marvelled at Rev. Walker’s set designs whilst enjoying his musicals, pantomimes and thrillers. The little wooden theatre became a place to be seen and local theatregoers were known to sport their best evening dress. The venue had a modest façade but its ornate interior of gold leaf and fine plaster work thrilled almost as much as the plays.
During the First World War the theatre was used to entertain the troops. Performed at each full moon, the shows drew full houses, the extra light enticing those from farther afield. A former Gilbert and Sullivan leading lady, Jessie Bond, now retired from the West End and living in Notts, even trod the boards, as did a 15-year old Donald Wolfit, making his theatre debut in a musical comedy. Newark born Wolfit would go on to become a renowned actor/manager and one of England’s greatest Shakespearean actors. For this, and his wartime performances, Wolfit was knighted in 1957. He provided the inspiration for the protagonist ‘Sir’ in the film ‘The Dresser’ (1983) played by Albert Finney. A retired Wolfit was once asked if it was true that he’d played the legs of a panto donkey in Averham. “Why yes,” he replied, “all four of them.”
After Rev. Walker’s death in 1942 his theatre company ‘The Country Bumpkins’ continued to play, but 1950s fire restrictions scuppered their fun and the wooden theatre fell silent, save for the local youths that played football in the abandoned auditorium. The new Rector, Bishop Mark Way, with the support of Valerie Baker and Gordon Kermode, helped revive the theatre and it reopened in 1961 under a charitable trust. Sir Donald Wolfit became a patron and gave a Shakespearean recital to help funds. He even composed an ode for the occasion which ended with the words:
“So here’s to the venture – good luck from my heart.
Many amateurs learn here to practice their art
In memory of Walker and great Jessie Bond
Pleasing not only locals but also tout le monde.”
When the new Nottingham Playhouse was formed in 1963, the Robin Hood Theatre would lend the Playhouse furniture in return for the use of their wardrobe. It was at this time that the Cambridge Footlights first took the Averham stage, with John Cleese, Tim Brook Taylor and Bill Oddie starring in ‘Cambridge Circus’. The footlights came back annually, a highlight being a 1968 BBC2 live show directed by Clive James. Other footlights to enjoy full houses at the Robin Hood Theatre include Germaine Greer, Eric Idle, Julie Covington and Graham Garden.
The theatre has suffered many challenges but with the generous support of locals has survived to this day, now under the trusteeship of the Nottinghamshire County Council. With a commitment to its Youth Group, the Robin Hood Theatre Company provides many workshops and opportunities for young people to learn and showcase new skills. Like Wolfit before them, many actors have given their first performance on the Averham stage. Simon Ward (Young Winston), Isla Blair, Jeremy Clyde, Christopher Neame and Christopher Timothy being examples in point.
There’s also support for new writing. A script development group called Play Group meet monthly and the theatre gives East Midlands based writers the chance to submit plays for selection, the best receiving a three-night run. To think, all this because the local vicar was a lover of theatre.