At the beginning of the nineteenth century Chelmsford was, according to historians, considered to be one of the most enthusiastic theatre-going towns in England. It had its own theatre, built on the site at present occupied by Marks & Spencer, with boxes, pit and galleries. Famous actors of the day appeared here, including Edmund Keane, Miss Foote of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and Mrs Sarah Siddons. Nearby there were beautiful gardens leading down to the riverside which, when lit by coloured lamps, gave the appearance of a miniature Vauxhall. It all sounds very elegant and civilised but, as often seems to be the case, the planners decided to improve the town. The theatre was demolished and New London Road was built – a familiar story.
The end of the century saw the advent of the amateur theatre movement. It soon grew in popularity and before long Gilbert and Sullivan and other similar operas were being performed by enthusiastic amateurs all over the country. It took us, in Chelmsford, some thirty years to decide that we should form an Operatic Society of our own – we were always quick to recognise a good thing when we saw it. A public meeting was called at the Corn Exchange in Tindal Square in November 1920, and the Chelmsford Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society was born. The first production was staged at the Empire Theatre (long since demolished) in Springfield Road – it was H.M.S. Pinafore and by all accounts, a great success receiving ecstatic reviews from the local press. Following that first production, the Society went on to stage musicals annually, the event soon becoming one of the highlights of the social calendar.
In 1939 however, following the production of The Belle of New York, advance preparations for the next production had to be halted due to the outbreak of war. During the next six years the committee met, periodically, to discuss the possibility of resuming activities, but wartime conditions made it impossible and it was not until 1947 that the next production could be staged. It was The Desert Song, directed by Madge Macklin at the Regent Theatre. It was a great success and caods was back in business.
The immediate post-war years were great ones for the theatre. Shows such as Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma, Carousel and South Pacific had crossed the Atlantic and were now available for amateur production. We engaged a new director, Phyl Payne, a busy theatrical agent and ex-dancer who brought with her an air of great professionalism and a string of successful productions. During one of these, Oliver! in 1968, it was decided to form a junior section of the Society to provide a theatrical outlet for the many young people who had presented themselves at auditions for that show. By that Christmas we had formed a junior society, one of the very first in the country, and were presenting Robinson Crusoe at Great Baddow School. Directed by Phyl Payne they soon achieved considerable success and in 1972, became independent of the adult society, adopting the name Chelmsford Young Generation, but still retaining very close ties with the parent company.
caods did not always ride on the crest of a wave, Like most similargroups there have been peaks and troughs in our history. Our production of Pickwick, caused one critic, to write “A genteel Edwardian air pervades the whole society – an injection of new talent and new management might well rescue the group from the doldrums in which they apparently find themselves”. Soon afterwards we engaged a new young professional director, Ray Jeffery, who, to quote the same critic “caused a wind of change to blow through the Society”. We had by that time, moved from the beautiful Wedgwood Blue, white and gold decorated Regent Theatre, with its gilt cherubs, to the modern Civic Theatre. Many of us still mourn the passing of that highly atmospheric theatre, initially to bingo and latterly to a late-night bar experience but we are happy to be firmly settled in our present home. Ray joined us for Kismet in 1974, and has been responsible for a succession of hit musicals. He has an infectious enthusiasm for everything he undertakes, demands absolute commitment and takes no prisoners.
It had always been our dream to have a home of our own so when, in 1985, the Young Generation acquired their own spacious headquarters building we were delighted and when, like all dutiful children, they invited their aging parents to move in with them, we were more than happy to accept. We now share a magnificent building, in parkland, with a large Rehearsal Room, Green Room, Kitchen, Dressing Rooms and in addition, a large Workshop, Wardrobe and Props area and no longer have to search for rehearsal accommodation, making us the envy of all who visit us.
In 2003 we welcomed a new director, Jeremy Tustin (Cowell) who joined the Young Generation at the age of seven. He trained professionally at Mountview Theatre School and, since graduating, appeared in numerous West End, touring and rep. seasons and has been responsible for a number of caods and Young Gen successes. 2009 saw Sallie Warrington make her ‘director-debut’ for caods with Chess, alongside our own Patrick Tucker as Musical Director. Sallie trained at the London Studio Centre then went on to have a successful career as a professional dancer. She is now a much sought after Director and Choreographer.
2010 was the Society’s 90th anniversary year and, amongst our celebrations we presented the wonderful Fiddler on the Roof, once again under the direction of Ray Jeffery but this time with the versatile Stuart Woolner, Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar acting as Musical Director. We were proud to have been chosen to stage one of the first amateur productions of Disney’s fabulous Beauty and the Beast – a great challenge, with Ray at his very best, and a fitting finale to our anniversary year. Ray Jeffery, whose career in the theatre now encompasses four decades, has worked throughout the UK, Ireland and further afield, where his name has become synonymous with spectacular, large scale productions. He has directed and choreographed nearly seventeen hundred musicals, operas and pantomimes, and also tutors day and weekend workshops and summer schools.
From classical to contemporary, we always deliver an eclectic mix of musicals. Regional premieres rub shoulders with time-honoured favourites – heart-warming Annie alongside the spell-binding Witches of Eastwick. Hot off the London West End and Broadway stages, our recent shows include Sister Act, Legally Blonde, All Shook Up and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, all being nominated and successful in winning a clutch of NODA (National Operatic & Dramatic Association) East Region awards for Best Musical. Most recently also attaining Chelmsford City Council’s Panic Award, a celebration of local live entertainment for My Fair Lady.
caods’ continued top-drawer productions and performances give us stand-out from a plethora of ‘production-line’ groups and societies. Our 2019/2020 centenary season show-cases Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice’s thrilling Evita; ogre-sized enjoyment for all the family with Shrek The Musical and flash, bang, wallop fun with Kipps – the new Half a Sixpence musical. Keep an eye out for future shows on the Current Show and Next Show pages. For a trip down memory lane check out our Past Shows, all the way back to 1920 !