Retro: Sheffield actors first on stage with iconic play

The ground-breaking Sheffield amateur version of Waiting for Godot with John Furniss, second right, as the slave Lucky
The ground-breaking Sheffield amateur version of Waiting for Godot with John Furniss, second right, as the slave Lucky

The recent production of Waiting for Godot at the Crucible prompted the revelation that one of the first, if not the first, amateur performances of this famous play was in Sheffield.

Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece was performed by the YMCA Dramatic Society in the old Sheffield YMCA Hall in Fargate on May 30, 31 and June 1, 1957 and then at amdram festivals around the country.

John Furniss, aged 83, who lives in Dore in Sheffield, wrote in with his memories of a ‘golden age’ of Sheffield amateur drama, including playing the slave Lucky, two years after the play’s first professional performance in Britain.

John said: “The YMCA Dramatic Society production was by W Jenkins ‘Gibby’ Gibson. In addition to his work as our benevolent dictator, he was financial director of the Hadfields steel company, a JP and a Scout Commissioner.”

Former advertising executive John has vivid memories of the cast in the picture above.

John said: “From the left is James Marsland (Didi). I never knew James’ occupation as he seemed to be always on stage somewhere. He was also a member of the Sheffield Playgoers.

“Pozzo is John Neilson, a prominent Sheffield solicitor.

“The little head on my shoulder belongs to Richard Jeffrey as the Boy who, well chaperoned by his father, learned and spoke his lines impeccably.

“On the right is John Blanchard (Gogo). Another mystery man, he came from ‘dahn sahth’,and presumably returned there at some time. He was an elegant actor and fine producer.”

As the publicity material enticing people to come to the YMCA Hall, shows, Godot had a mixed reaction in its early days.

But John said: “No-one walked out of our shows as far as I’m aware, because pre-contact lenses the audience was just a blur to me!

“The only bad time was a festival in Buxton when Jim Marsland was taken to hospital seriously ill just before curtain up and the great Gibby played Didi script in hand unrehearsed and uncostumed.”

And the YMCA DS got a rave review in the Sheffield Morning Telegraph from EF Watling for the Sheffield run.

The legendary classics master at King Edward VII School, who always signed himself W, described John as the image of patient endurance as Lucky, who renders the ‘nonsense’ speech to perfection’.

John said: “I never met him but he was usually nice to us. I also remember Jean Rook who did well at the Mirror Group.”

John started acting in the mid-’50s during a ‘golden age’ of Sheffield amateur drama.

He said: “In 1955 my wife Pamela worked alongside a spinster lady named Emo Ward who lived alone in a large house in Holmesfield, on the edge of the moors.

“Her late father, GB Ward, was a leading authority on Derbyshire rural matters.

“She was also a leading member of the YMCA DS, and after introduction to Gibby, he gave me a copy of Christopher Fry’s The Firstborn and invited me to a reading.

“I was cast as Rameses and did OK, with a good report from the critic at the Sheffield and District Theatrical Association festival at the Sheffield Library Theatre.

“In February 1956 I was cast as Fender, the Jewish warehouse clerk in The Bespoke Overcoat by Wolf Mankowitz and entered a festival in Leeds.

“We won the overall prize, and thanks to some coaching by Abe Levy of the Sheffield Maccabi Players I took the individual award. I was type-cast for old or weird parts after that.

“In addition to Lucky and various parts in Ionesco plays we did comedies and farces such as On Monday Next (a Leslie Phillips role), Tons of Money (Sprules, a butler), Doctor in the House (Simon Sparrow): also some thrillers including Dial M for Murder (Tony Wendice, like Ray Milland on screen), Love from a Stranger (Bruce Lovell, the homicidal maniac).

“Some of these did well at festivals like Buxton, Harrogate and Colwyn Bay.

“I also wrote two one-act plays, both winning author prizes at SADATA Festivals.

“Sadly, the end of the ’50s saw the death of the legendary Gibby, a blow from which the YMCA DS never recovered.

“I joined the Dilys Guite Players at the Lantern Theatre in Nether Edge which, the last I heard, was still thriving.”