Did Hollywood legend Basil Rathbone act with Newport Playgoers?

September 27, 2012

When ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ opens at the Dolman Theatre on 17th October it will revive memories of Newport Playgoers’ links with the man who, for many, was the definitive Sherlock Holmes – the legendary Hollywood star Basil Rathbone.

Basil Rathbone

The photo of Basil Rathbone that was donated to Newport Playgoers by his first wife Marion who was a leading light in the drama group for many years.

A photograph of the late, great actor adorns the walls of the Dolman Theatre and was a gift to Playgoers from Rathbone’s first wife, Marion, who was for many years one of the leading lights of the drama society. Well-known as an actress, director and teacher, she filled the walls of her home with photos of Rathbone in various roles.

“The connection between Basil Rathbone and Newport Playgoers is a real mystery and we had to think like Sherlock Holmes himself to try to crack it,” says Alex Wilson from Cardiff who is directing ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.

Alex and his team of sleuths discovered that Marion met Rathbone when he was touring the UK with his cousin Frank Benson’s Shakespeare Company and appeared with him in productions of ‘As You Like It’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’. They married in 1914 and the following year had a son, Rodion. With the First World War raging, Rathbone joined the army in 1915 and served with distinction, his exploits earning him the Military Cross for outstanding bravery.

The couple divorced in 1926, two years after Playgoers was founded – so the puzzle remains of whether Basil Rathbone ever appeared in a Playgoers production before going off to Hollywood where, as well as making several films as Sherlock Holmes, he appeared in costume dramas such as ‘David Copperfield’, ‘The Mark of Zorro’, and ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ with Errol Flynn.

Chris Bissex-Williams, who plays Dr Watson in Playgoer’s production, shed some light on the subject. “Marion kept the name Rathbone all her life. She would always sweep into the theatre, black cloak flying behind her, billowing scarf and big feathered hat – a real grande dame.

Veteran Playgoer Babs Richards recalled, “I knew Marion very well. She always dressed in black and one felt she was always giving a performance, even when she just speaking to you. She directed many plays, mainly outdoor productions of Shakespeare. I remember their son, Rodion, appeared in a few Playgoers’ productions in the 1930s. He looked very much like his father, very dark, with a little moustache.”

Newport Playgoers present 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'

Newport Playgoers’ atmospheric production features James Symonds as Sir Henry Baskerville, Chris Bissex-Williams as Dr Watson and Steve Drowley as Sherlock Holmes. (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

Basil Rathbone appeared in a famous film version of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ and director Alex Wilson is determined to make Playgoers’ presentation just as thrilling.  “Our production will be very atmospheric and evocative of a dank, foggy Dartmoor where the hound roams. We’re sure it will send chills down the spines of the audience.”

‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ is at the Dolman Theatre from 17 – 20 October at 7.15 pm, with an extra matinee performance on the Saturday at 2.30 pm. To book tickets call 01633 263670 or visit www.dolmantheatre.co.uk.  New members are always welcome to become involved both onstage and behind the scenes.


Alan Bennett’s Battles with a Lady Tramp Hits the Dolman Stage

April 12, 2012

The true story of what happened when a female tramp parked her dilapidated old van in writer Alan Bennett’s front garden unfolds on the stage of the Dolman Theatre from 17th – 21st April.

Lady in the Van

Kevin Myers and Alex Wilson as two different sides of playwright Alan Bennett wheel Miss Shepherd (Ruth Ferguson) round the garden (PHOTO:PHIL MANSELL)

The acclaimed play ‘The Lady in the Van’ is the latest production by Newport Playgoers. It tells how Bennett deals with the two elderly women in his life – the indomitable Miss Shepherd who takes up his invitation to park her van in his garden and stays there for 15 years, and his mother who has started her long decline into senility.

Directed by Ray Stone, this wonderfully witty drama is based on Bennett’s memories and asks whether the playwright’s good deeds in helping these two ladies are borne out of guilt, altruism or a mercenary eye for a good story.

The play also excels in revealing the two sides of Bennett – Alan the man and Alan the writer – in an ingenious device that lets the two sides of Bennett’s personality interact.

Lady in the Van

Kevin Myers as Alan Bennett and Ann Kelly as his Mam (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

The Lady in the Van’ is at the Dolman Theatre from 17 – 21 April. Tickets can be booked by phoning the box office on 01633 263670 or visiting www.dolmantheatre.co.uk.

Lady in the Van

Miss Shepherd (Ruth Ferguson) is given a push in her infamous van by Alan Bennett (Alex Wilson) (PHOTO: PHIL MANSELL)

Michael Sheen sends Good Luck Message to Welsh Premiere of ‘Frost/Nixon’

November 3, 2011

Michael Sheen as David Frost in the film 'Frost/Nixon'

Top actor Michael Sheen has sent a message of support for a production of ‘Frost/Nixon’ which has its national premiere by a non-professional company when it is presented by Newport Playgoers at the Dolman Theatre this month.

In a letter to the play’s director, Alex Wilson, the actor, wrote, “‘Frost/Nixon’  is a great play, and we all had tremendous pleasure in developing the work on both stage and screen. I am sure that you, too, will thrill to the challenge of performing a marvellous piece of theatre in the lovely Dolman auditorium.’

Alex commented, “It was marvellous to have this message of support from such a highly respected actor as Michael, who has very close associations with ‘Frost/Nixon’, having played David Frost both onstage and in the best-selling film.

Newport Playgoers present 'Frost/Nixon'

Thomas Hockey as David Frost and Stephen Saunders as Richard Nixon

“Everyone at Newport Playgoers is very to proud to be presenting the national premiere of this engrossing, thought-provoking and humorous ticking time bomb of a thriller which centres on the events leading up to the interviews that Frost conducted with Richard Nixon in 1977, almost three years after he had resigned as President to avoid impeachment following the Watergate affair,” he added.

Peter Morgan’s play focuses on the story of how those historic interviews came about, and how they played out, asking the question: how did David Frost, a famous British talk show host with a playboy reputation, elicit the apology that the rest of the world was waiting to hear from former President Richard Nixon?

Newport Playgoers present 'Frost/Nixon'

Stephen Saunders as Richard Nixon and Thomas Hockey as David Frost

With Frost’s career on a downward spiral and risking everything, Nixon surprised everyone in selecting Frost as his televised confessor, intending to easily outfox the breezy British showman and secure a place back in the hearts and minds of Americans. Likewise, Frost’s team harboured doubts about their boss’s ability to hold his own. But as the cameras rolled, a charged battle of wits resulted and over the course of their encounter, each man would reveal his own insecurities, ego and reserves of dignity – ultimately setting aside posturing in a stunning display of unvarnished truth. 

‘Frost/Nixon’ by Peter Morgan, the highly acclaimed screenwriter of ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ and ‘The Queen’, is at the Dolman Theatre from 15 – 19 November. Tickets can be booked by phoning the box office on 01633 263670 or visiting www.dolmantheatre.co.uk.