Romford's theatrical roots
PUBLISHED: 08:29 30 March 2015 | UPDATED: 08:29 30 March 2015
Essex has long been noted as a hotbed for entertainment talent and Petra Hornsby takes a closer look at how lots of hard work in Romford has added to the opportunities for stars of the future to flourish
There have been a multitude of actors, comedians and musicians to have emerged successfully from their Essex roots and as the county’s recent run of success in the plethora of TV shows we see, this county just seems to have a knack of producing celebrities. Many of our towns have a wide range of performing arts groups that nurture talent from an early age as well as venues that cater for those that wish to watch rather than participate in treading the boards. Romford is just one such place and one venue in particular is currently lighting up the lights in this Essex town.
It may come as some surprise that for a town of Romford’s size, there wasn’t a theatre until 2012. The town’s Brookside Theatre, on Eastern Road near the railway station, resides on the site of the Romford War Memorial Social Club, previously known as the Romford War Memorial Old Folks Club, which was opened in October 1953. The buildings were funded by public money and were built to honour the service personnel and civilians from the borough who lost their lives during World War II. The community hall featured oak panels — engraved with the names of those who fell — which were given to the town by the USAF in recognition of and thanks for the hospitality shown to them during their time stationed in Romford during the war.
In the early 1970s, the construction of a ring road encouraged the building of several large office blocks which rather overwhelmed the memorial and, in time, the buildings fell into disrepair.
Enter stage left Romford born playwright and actor Jai Sepple, his wife Harri and a small team of volunteers on a mission to restore the memorial buildings. For 20 years, Jai has headed the Stage One Theatre Company, putting on more than 60 productions and raising money for several charities including Help For Heroes, earning him plenty of respect from the community.
When the group lost their rehearsal space, they received an unexpected phone call. Jai explains: ‘We were thrilled to receive a telephone call from a lady inviting us to continue the charity work we were doing but at a different venue, the social club. To thank the elderly members of the club, we promised to help renovate the buildings as they were in a terrible state of disrepair.’
In 2011, the work began to return the club to its former purpose and, to help with the project, the team were lucky to receive some generous support from local businesses. During the work, it was decided that the main hall should become a theatre to serve the town and in May 2012, a charity performance of Shout! The Sixties Musical was the first to be staged there.
Following the first production, the theatre got lots of welcome interest from TV celebrities, West End producers and David Essex OBE agreed to become their patron.
Subsequent productions continued to win great acclaim including The Pirates of Penzance, Deathtrap, Nunsense, The Jungle Book, Frankenstein: The ➤ Musical and Nights On Broadway. All of these productions were staged to raise vital money for the social club and the war memorial. In addition to its own in-house productions, the Brookside Theatre also plays host to performances by some of the UK’s top tribute and musical acts.
Now the 140-seat studio theatre, staffed by volunteers, is recognised as a great asset to the town’s leisure and entertainment facilities and, by day, the social club continues to be used by senior citizen groups and also mother and toddler groups — making it the very heart of the community.
Jai certainly seems very happy with the outcome of all the hard work. ‘Things certainly seem to have taken off in a huge way and the community is behind us 100%,’ he says. ‘Money raised by the events will pay for the upkeep of the hall which will benefit the community and we hope that, in time, the Romford War Memorial Social Club will become an important part of Romford life, enrich community spirit and, importantly, once more become the memorial to the fallen that it was originally intended to be.’
April’s programme of events includes a Bon Jovi Tribute, Lonnie Donegan Junior’s Skiffle Party and Jack the Ripper: Monster of Whitechapel performed by Essex group The Brookside Players.
The theatre is always happy to hear from local residents wanting to get involved and from local community groups or organisations interested in hiring the facilities during the day. They are also looking for talented and enthusiastic local performers, singers, dancers and actors for future productions.
It would seem Romford is now a key centre for the performing arts and certainly has a growing reputation. Thanks to the dedicated and enthusiastic team who undertook the renovation project at the Romford War Memorial Social Club, it certainly seems like the town’s theatre and its social club are in very safe hands for the future.
Find out more
Tickets can be purchased online at anytime or from the box office on 01708 755775, which is open 10am-6pm (Monday to Friday). Visit www.brooksidetheatre.com