Wakefield Gilbert and Sullivan Society recently celebrated its silver jubilee. Here is a personal history of the first 25 years.


Many moons ago, before CDs, the internet and ipods, and when greasepaint was “9&5”, a member of the long established Aireborough G & S Society moved to Wakefield.  On finding that our “Merrie City” actually had no dedicated G&S Society, Anne Myers set out to put this right: through her vision and contacts the Society was born.

After several months of rehearsal, a “gallant crew”, many new to the genre, had their very first opening night. And what a night it was: a performance of “Trial by Jury” in the Old Courthouse in Wakefield Town Hall. Even the audience came in costume. The date?  25th May 1983. Two of the bridesmaids who took part in that first performance are still full members of the society and still enjoying their stage work – “gluttons for punishment” some might say (especially their long suffering husbands).

Trial by Jury – 1983

The following year came the first “full length” Savoy Opera from the still very new Society: “The Mikado”. And the venue was the newly reopened “Theatre Royal and Opera House” – re-opened, yes – refurbished, NO! We were only the second company to perform in it following its reclamation from cinema and bingo hall, and even the mezzanine floor, reducing the height above the stage by half, was still in place. A large communal changing room was heated by an industrial sized portable gas heater – today’s health and safety laws would never have allowed it.  But how we enjoyed ourselves. Audiences poured in. No computerised tickets in those days – no box office, even – just different coloured tickets for each performance, all numbered by hand. But imagine the buzz backstage when a message came through from front-of-house on the 3rd night: “House Full”. Wakefield Gilbert & Sullivan Society was now a fully functioning company.

Edward Child - musical director, 1983 - 1989
Edward Child – musical director, 1983 – 1989

The Society grew in numbers and confidence, and in the years to come we gradually worked our way through much of the G&S repertoire. We learned the subtle “innuendos” of Gilbert’s clever, frequently satirical, libretti. With the help of talented Musical Directors, we progressed from “note bashing” to put feeling and musicality into Sullivan’s expressive music which ranges from utter sentimentality to ferocious military attacks!

A WG&S concert in 1994
A WG&S concert in 1994

In 25 year there have been innumerable highlights. As well as the annual “Show Week”, we have performed concerts of G&S, plus a range of other music, at countless chapels, church halls and other venues right across the district. Two concerts at the Chantry Chapel perhaps stand out as being particularly memorable. Our concert party has entertained many times, and our carol singing at Christmas is used to raise funds for Wakefield Hospice.

In 1995 we took part in the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in Buxton, performing “Patience” as the opening show of this aficionados beanfeast  at the Buxton Opera House (another Matcham Theatre). It’s a bigger stage, an impressive auditorium and what a thrilling time we had. People travel from every continent to be at this festival; it was such a great privilege to be a part of it.

Grims Dyke - Gilbert's house
Grims Dyke – Gilbert’s house

More recently, we visited, and stayed at, Grims Dyke, the former home of W.S. Gilbert, in Harrow. How we enjoyed a posh night out, relishing “dinner with opera” in Gilbert’s former music room. What a splendid occasion that was! We journeyed the following day to the Tower of London to take our PR photos in readiness for a forthcoming production of “The Yeomen of the Guard”. A return visit to Grims Dyke took place in July 2008 as part of our 25th anniversary celebrations: this time it was to see “The Mikado” – in readiness for 2009!

Talking of PR photos brings to mind other memorable, but very different photo-shoots. It’s a perennial problem that crops up in committee: “Where do we take this years photos?” One year we had very frozen fairies, trying to smile and look the part,  draping themselves around a fountain in the rose garden in Thornes Park one cold December morning, in preparation for a production of “Iolanthe”. Another year, the same question was asked at a committee meeting and one wag immediately suggested “Venice”. Can you imagine the scathing mirth at that suggestion? However, one keen eyed member then found an advert for a day-trip to Venice, so off seven of us went, well before the crack of dawn, flying down and across the Alps on a clear but  rather chilly February day. Photos of us, in matching “Gondoliers” T-shirts, were duly taken on the Rialto Bridge, where a kind but bemused member of the public offered to help so we could all be in shot. An even more bemused gondolier had to put up with his passengers serenading him with a selection of suitable Sullivan choruses. Lunch? We found plenty of pizza, but no “macaroni and a Rusk”.

Over the 25 years, we have had the help, support and encouragement of people too numerous to mention. All have played their part in the shaping of the Society into what it is today. We have had many willing folk, plus the occasional press-ganged “volunteer”, to serve on our very active committee. Each has given of their own talents: everyone has their own “metier”. It doesn’t matter whether it’s wardrobe or tickets, sorting the accounts or liaising with patrons and sponsors: it all needs doing.

Making refreshments
Making refreshments

It’s impossible to count how many costumes we have made or hired, or how many props have been made, begged and borrowed but, hopefully, not stolen. How many times must hardworking accompanists actually play an “Act 1 Finale” before we finally get the show to performance level? How many folk have ever helped front of house, or with the lighting, scenery, and that last dab of paint? How many “ballads, songs and snatches” have we ever learned?

Our constitution, laid down in the early days of the Society, states that we should “perform Gilbert & Sullivan Opera”. This we most certainly have succeeded in doing. By the time we  completed our 2008 performance of “Patience”, we had performed each of the 11 most frequently performed of comic opera repertoire at least twice. Wakefield now has one of the leading G&S Societies in West Yorkshire and some of our members travel a long way to be part of it. Many amazing people have helped us along our way, and to them all, we say a huge “Thank You”.

So why?  Why?  Why do we do it?  Fun?  Friendship? Love of music?  The Entertainer inside each of us trying to get out?  The adrenalin rush?  The excitement of waiting behind the curtains during the overture?  Making the audience laugh?  The applause at the curtain call?  The feel of exhilaration when a good production is over? Who knows, but long may it continue.

Patience (2008) – 25th Anniversary Show


Since those halycyon days of performances at the Theatre Royal in Wakefield we managed to keep performing there until 2013 until the money ran out.

Since then we have performed for 3 years at St. Austin’s theatre but in 2017 we moved to our latest “home” at Sandal Methodist Church on Barnsley Road in Wakefield. We performed 3 shows here but the Coronavirus hit us in 2020 and we effectively missed 2 years performances.

Since 2022 however we have started productions again in a somewhat cutdown version of full costumes but minimal scenery and a piano for an orchestra. This allows us to keep afloat. Our main worry going forward is our ageing cast but we are hoping to keep going for the foreseeable future.