The Company of Players (CoPs) - Hertford

The Company of Players

Our Theatre

The Little Theatre is located in Balfour Street in Hertford and was formerly the infants’ School of Christ Church, which was built in 1868. In the late 1960s, the church was demolished and the land and adjoining schoolhouse were put out to tender by the Church Commissioners. Due to the generosity of a then anonymous well-wisher, the company was in a position to make a successful tender and in February 1972 the building and adjoining land were purchased. Richard Hitch, a Chartered Architect and member of CoPs produced pans for the conversion of the building into a theatre and planning permission was obtained for terraced houses on the adjoining land. The land was then sold to a developer, netting The Company a profit with which to carry out the conversion.

The Theatre seats 63 and is equipped with a dressing room, a technical control room, in-house communications, CCTV and storage facilities. In 1998 an extension to The Theatre was built, providing a foyer and additional storage facilities.

We are currently planning a new extension to the theatre. You can find further details here

The History of the Company

The COMPANY of PLAYERS was formed on 19th March 1962 by disaffected members of Hertford Dramatic & Operatic Society’s drama sub-committee.

Ten months prior to the formation of The Company, at a special meeting of the Society’s Dramatic Sub-Committee on 31st May 1961, it was unanimously decided that the entire sub-committee would resign from HDOS following the refusal of The Society to stage a production of St. Joan at The Corn Exchange.

The minutes of the meeting record,

“The meeting wholeheartedly deplored this rejection, and, after much consideration, it was agreed that this decision by The General Committee amounted to lack of confidence in the Sub-Committee”.

The document continues,

“In the circumstances, it was proposed by Mr.Crozier, seconded by Mrs.Wells and carried unanimously, that the entire subcommittee resigns, so as to express, officially, its strong disapproval of the way a challenging but practicable and reasonable proposal had been vetoed”.

Three days later, on 2nd June 1961, a handwritten letter of resignation was sent to The Society’s president.


Hertfordshire Mercury, March 1962

The “rebellion” by last year’s drama sub-committee of Hertford Dramatic and Operatic Society, which culminated in the sub-committee resigning just before the annual meeting last June, has resulted in a new “breakaway” drama group.

Mr.John Crozier told The Mercury, “We are calling ourselves ‘The Company Of Players’, but we have no plans for presenting a play at Hertford at the moment.”

The group resigned last year because they did not agree with the drama policy of the society. A production of St. Joan for the Corn Exchange was vetoed by the general committee.

The reason for the veto was that the finances of the society had suffered the previous season by losses on two productions.

The rebellion went deeper than that, however. The incident over St. Joan brought to a head something that had been simmering for some time.

The sub-committee members felt that a long-term policy was necessary. People would not come into the town to see plays unless they were of real theatrical merit.

The new “Company Of Players” includes some of the society’s leading actors, producers and stage management experts.

Mr. Crozier said that for the time being the group hoped to read plays at hospitals, institutions and other organisations.

“We also envisage going round the villages with plays, excerpts and curtain raisers. We hope to present plays in pubs and from farm carts.

“We also hope to stage one-act and full-length plays in drama festivals. In the future, we hope to enter Hertford Theatre Week” said Mr. Crozier.

The group’s membership is 12 at the moment and Mr. Crozier did not think it would grow to more than two dozen.

“Obviously it will be some time before we appear in Hertford” he said, a little wistfully.

Ambitious Programme

The new Company announced it’s first programme in the Summer of 1962. The first production was to be Collect Your Hand Baggage by John Mortimer, directed by Joan Lee, and was entered for the 14th Felixstowe Drama Festival of One Act Plays, which took place between 29th September and 6th October 1962.

Other plans included The Dumb Wife Of Cheapside, which together with Collect Your Hand Baggage, was to be offered to village organisations in East Hertfordshire.

A nativity play, The Little Red Tree by Glyn Griffiths, was also proposed, for presentation in local churches, including Christ Church, Port Vale, Bengeo. The Hertfordshire Mercury reported,

“From January to June, the Company of Players, or the COPS, as they call themselves, will enter one, perhaps two, one-act plays in festivals through the period, culminating with The Welwyn Festival. The choice of plays will not be made until late Autumn”.

The report continues,

“The COPS intend to give a public performance of a full-length play just as soon as is practical, Autumn 1963 is a possible time”.

During the first year, The Company also performed Collect Your Hand Baggage and The Form at Datchworth Memorial Hall, to an audience of eighty.

Following these one-act plays, The Company was ready to embark on it’s first full-length presentation.

Bell Book Candle
Witchcraft was treated to a comical vein by The Company Of Players in their performance of John Van Druten's 'Bell, Book and Candle'. The eccentric Miss Holroyd (left), played by Vi Wells, finds that even the telephone is bewitched in this scene with Philip Jackson (centre), Mary Wingate and Robert Ferguson

First Full-length Production

The COMPANY of PLAYERS first full-length production was Bell, Book And Candle, by John Mortimer, presented at St.Nicholas Hall, St.Andrews Street, Hertford, 16th-18th May 1963. Three days later, the play was performed again during The Company’s second visit to The Felixstowe Drama Festival of Full Length Plays, on Tuesday 21st May 1963.

Of the performances at Hertford, The Hertfordshire Mercury reported,

“A feature of the mechanics of the production, from business angle, was the fact that no box office was employed, and yet all the tickets were sold for the three nights, ensuring three packed houses. This was acheived through the 40 members of the Company who acted as ticket sellers, and presents an interesting sidelight on attracting audiences”.

It was shortly after this production that CoPs received its first award. Still Waters by Delsie Darke, was performed at the fourth Lea Valley Drama Festival and won the main prize, The Pollard Rose Bowl, which was presented to producer Jim Mitchell by newsreader Michael Aspel.

This was followed in October 1963 by The Company’s second full-length play Intimate Relations by Jean Cocteau, which ran from 10th-12th October at St.Nicholas Hall.

A second award followed the same month when Jim Mitchell’s production of A Ladder For Lucy, another Delsie Darke play, won the Silver Trophy at the Felixstowe Drama Festival of One Act Plays. The play was later performed at The Corn Exchange on 18th December 1963.

The New Year proved no less successful, with a production of John Van Druten’s I Am A Camera at St.Nicholas Hall and a victory for the second successive year at the Lea Valley Drama Festival.

In 1965 the Company presented its’ first Premiere, Invitation To A March by Arthur Laurents. The Hertfordshire Mercury reported

“The play, which was successfully produced in New York by the author, in 1960, with a cast which included Celeste Holm and Jane Fonda, has never reached the professional stage here”. The story continued “It was ‘dug up’ by a member of The Company of Players, who was browsing in the American Embassy library, but negotiations for its production have taken 12 months”.

Productions at St.Nicholas Hall continued through the 1960s. There were further victories at The Lea Valley Drama Festival (Hearts And Humours), The Southgate Drama Festival (How’s The World Treating You) and the Bishops Stortford Drama Festival.

The Little Theatre

For much of the sixties, the Company performed at St.Nicholas Hall in St.Andrews Street, Hertford.

However, facilities here were limited and not entirely suitable for dramatic use, with dry rot finally forcing the Company to seek alternative premises.

It was around this time that Christ Church in Port Vale was closed, following its amalgamation with Holy Trinity. Behind the church stood an old schoolhouse, bordering Balfour Street and the disused railway that linked Hertford’s two railway stations.

As soon as the Company heard of these premises, a committee was formed, made up of Jim Mitchell, Richard Hitch and Bill Corfield. These three men were well qualified for such a task, Jim Mitchell being a bank manager, Richard Hitch a Chartered Architect, and Bill Corfield a Chartered Surveyor and Valuer.

The Church Commissioners planned to demolish the buildings and sell the vacant ground, but following discussions with the Company, a quarterly tenancy on the schoolhouse was agreed from January 1969. During the summer, a temporary stage was erected and in December the first play was presented in Balfour Street, Tilly of Bloomsbury by Ian Hay.

Christ Church Hertford
Following demolition of the church and letting of the schoolhouse, the land and school were put out to tender. As a note of interest, the schoolhouse was given to the church by Mr.Robert Hanbury, of Poles, Ware, and erected in 1868.

In the months that followed, Jim Mitchell managed to obtain an interest free loan of £20,000, and the Company was able to make a successful tender for the school and land. The purchase was finalised in February 1972.

The special committee, together with Bill Wells, set up a trust. Plans were then produced by Richard Hitch and planning permission obtained for terraced housing on the vacant land between the theatre and Port Vale. Bill Corfield then found a developer for the land, which was then sold with the benefit of planning permission, netting the Company a profit on it’s initial outlay of £20,000.

During this period, further improvements were made to the theatre, including raked seating, a kitchen, the provision of storage space and painting of the exterior. In addition, a technical box was constructed for use by the lighting and sound crews. Due to the prohibitive costs of creating a venue suitable for public performances, the theatre can be used only by members of The Company and their guests.

At this time, the Company became the only local theatre group in the town with it’s own premises, a valuable commodity as there are no overheads for using rehearsal or performance space. The Company was now fully independent and continued with productions such as The Judge by John Mortimer, The First Night Of Pygmalion by Richard Huggett, and The Irregular Verb To Love by Hugh and Margaret Williams.

The Little Theatre in Hertford (The Company of Players) Auditorium in 1969
The Little Theatre in Hertford's Auditorium in 1969

Hertford Theatre Week

In April 1975, The Company first entered Hertford Theatre Week with their production of The Confidential Clerk by T.S.Eliot, produced by Joan Lee. The highly successful production not only won the Runners-Up Cup, but it also took the Audience Appreciation Award.

Further improvements to The Little Theatre were planned in 1977, with an application to the local authority for new kitchen and dressing room, including the demolition and rebuilding of the old toilets, giving an extension of 105 m2 to the 149 m2 building. Meanwhile, the December production was cancelled for the installation of central heating – replacing the wall-mounted gas fires.

In June 1978, Bill Wells retired as Front Of House Manager after 15 years and was made a life member. At the same time, The Company announced that planning permission had been granted for improvements to the theatre.

The Company were again Runners-Up at Hertford Theatre Week in 1981 with their production of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, directed by Joan Lee.

Nearly twenty years after the formation of The Company, a production of See How They Run by Philip King was staged in February 1982. The production was notable in that it was directed by Brian Wilde, best known for his role in BBC TV’s Last Of The Summer Wine. In the same year, The Company again entered Hertford Theatre Week with a production of Waltz Of The Toreadors by Jean Anouilh, directed by Margaret Hakansson.

1983 again saw The Company as Runners-Up at Hertford Theatre Week with Ray Newton’s production of Alphabetical Order by Michael Frayn, which also won the Audience Award.

The set of 1985’s production of Just Between Ourselves by Alan Ayckbourn, included a car amongst the props. The play, co-directed by Barry Lee and Betty Janes, starred Maggie Nix, Margaret and Eric Brown, and Maisie Ditton.

In 1986, eleven years after first entering Hertford Theatre Week, The Company won the first prize – The Mercury Cup – with their production of The Cocktail Party by T.S.Eliot, directed by Joan Lee. The play starred Barry Lee, Lelia Kershaw, Karen Lee, Eric Brown, Martin Hillary, Tony Cole-Hamilton, Mary Wingate and Pippa Cooke.

In the following year, CoPs were Runners-Up again at Theatre Week with their production of Pack Of Lies by Hugh Whitemore, directed by Tony Mason.

The Foyer

The next major development for The Little Theatre came in 1998, when The Company was successful in applying for a grant from the local authority for the construction of a foyer.

Up until this time, the main entrance to the building had been directly into the auditorium. The addition of a foyer not only allowed the convenient serving of refreshments prior to and during productions, but also provided valuable space for other activities.

The Little Theatre could now boast an auditorium, a refitted dressing room, props store, technical box, kitchen and adequate storage space for technical equipment.