Lets start at the very beginning...
At the end of the 19th century, do-it-yourself meant just that as far as local entertainment was concerned. Friends took it in turns to meet at each other’s houses for a musical evening. There was always someone who played the piano – and, of course, they all took along their pieces of music. So successful were these evenings that one group decided to go a step further and perform HMS Pinafore at the Royal Naval Barracks in Devonport.
Then, encouraged by their success, these pioneers decided to form themselves into an amateur operatic society. So it was that the Plymouth Amateur Operatic Society was born, beginning in 1899 with a production of The Pirates of Penzance. The proceeds were £40 and were devoted to the Boer War Fund. Elated with its success members set their sights higher and presented The Gondoliers at the Theatre Royal, with the result that productions were performed annually at the same venue for many years. In 1903 the society deviated from Gilbert and Sullivan and performed The Mountebanks followed by musicals of that period such as The Country Girl: Miss Hook of Holland and A Waltz Dream.
Change of Title
In 1929, the society received the NODA Bronze Plaque for operatic art, in a competition that was discontinued in the late 1930’s. Four years later, when the town of Plymouth became a city, the society took the title City of Plymouth Amateur Operatic Society. Then, in 1936, the Royal Theatre closed and the beautiful Foulston building, described nevertheless, by one critic between the wars as “the theatre of splendid misery” because of its size and its chequered career under a succession of managers ~ was demolished to make way for a cinema as the ‘talkies’ swept everything before them.
The Palace Theatre then became the society’s home from 1938 – 1965 and when this also closed, we moved to a much smaller venue, The Hoe Theatre, where we were to remain for the next two decades. During the years at the Hoe theatre the society purchased its own premises in Bath Street, which provided rehearsal rooms, wardrobe space, scene dock and committee rooms.
Then in 1982, the long awaited new Theatre Royal was opened and Plymouth AOS had the honour of being the first amateur society to perform there, with a production of Fiddler on the Roof. This became the society’s main venue for their annual shows for many years. Productions such as 42nd Street (pictured): Singin’ In the Rain: Crazy for You: Me and My Girl: Mack and Mabel were so popular that they filled the 1,300 seat theatre receiving wide acclaim from critics and patrons alike.
This year was also a milestone, as it was then that the rehearsal rooms in Bath Street were sold and a former Methodist Central Hall in Fore Street, Devonport was purchased ~ eventually to become the Devonport Playhouse, a 311 seat theatre in which the society were to perform some of their musicals, still presenting their main show at the Theatre Royal once a year.
The Devonport Playhouse conversion was a major physical and financial undertaking by society members, involving among other things the creation of a stage, orchestra pit and dressing rooms. The Playhouse was initially put on the map when the society was approached by Saga Holidays, through the Theatre Royal ~ to perform a summer season on two nights a week. We jumped at this opportunity and much to everyone’s relief the theatre licence was finally delivered and displayed in the foyer just two hours before the opening performance: The rest, as they say, is history...