By Sears Eldredge
Expecting Singapore would soon be subject to Allied long-range bombing attacks, the Japanese ordered a permanent “black-out,” so no shows could be given outdoors in the evening. In response, the concert party moved into “a large barn-like shed”[i] they would call “The Barn Theatre” [Hut #16]. And the concert party changed its name to “The Barnstormers.”[ii]
Ronald Searle designed the décor for the new theatre, including the logo of a cow jumping over the moon in the center of the proscenium arch with stars scattered on the front curtains. When Searle was finished, Horner wrote, “The Barn Theatre looks very good and is able to create a very intimate atmosphere.”[iii] Unfortunately, “intimate atmosphere” meant the size of the audience would be limited.
Searle’s “Sketchbook” has a list of “The Barnstormers” participants and their various responsibilities. The Entertainments Officer is now Capt. R. L. Homes and not Ronald Horner, who is listed as part of the Acting Company. Their Scenic Artist is Ronald Searle, and there are different Producers for different types of shows: Lt. J. Mackwood for Drama and Capt. Homes and Pte. B “Professor” Roberts for Variety. Bill Williams is listed as responsible for Musical Direction; Wardrobe Masters are Lt. Archer and Lt. Haynes; Electrician, Peter Pearce; Clerk, Jim Whitely; and Stage Manager, Jack Wood. There are now twenty-one actors in the company, including two Dutch POWs, Dick Trouvat and Henri Ecoma, a backstage staff of twelve, Scenic Artists, Script Writers, and five members of the Front of House staff.[iv] The concert party had big plans: they would be a repertory theatre and announce a “Spring Season” of productions.
John Beckerley recalled that one of the acting company, Capt. Robin Welbury, . . .
. . . wrote his own material and did a series in front tabs comedy sketches. They were very popular. One I remember very well. Browbeaten husband is told by bitch of a wife to put away the row of wine bottles before she gets home or else. She leaves. Robin details to the audience every action he takes putting the wine away. . . drinking it, from pulling the cork and filling his glass to staggering around the room drinking the cork, throwing the wine away, counting the same bottle lovingly over and over, now dead drunk etc. (Reading this it doesn’t sound funny at all: in fact, he had the audience in the palm of his hand and they loved it.)[v]
Searle designed most of the sets for the Barnstormers’ shows, and he selected Beckerley to become his assistant.
Ron Searle designed the sets, sometimes a large ‘backdrop’ with plain side flats. Guess who was detailed to paint those. Ron would draw outlines on his cartoon-like backdrop with precise directives re block colour with shading and fading in and out to produce ‘our now’ finished background. He understood my limitations, was always considerate and encouraged rather than criticized. I learned fast: it was in his interest that I did.[vi]
As with other concert parties, one of their major concerns was how to obtain costumes. This dilemma was partially solved by the Japanese.
Costumes at Sime Road: load of clothes from Singapore (JAPS COULD NOT USE THEM SO ‘HELP YOUR SELF’) As with Music 78s, Books, Etc. We would have preferred medicines and food. Costumes cutting made by two professional tailors (POW SOLDIERS). Two gnome-like characters who actually sat cross-legged like Disney characters when working. Believe me, it’s true. No conversations . . . never! Not even when fitting us.[vii]
[i] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 2004.
[ii] Horner, 118; Searle, “Sketchbook,” n.p.
[iii] Horner, R. 119.
[iv] Searle, R. “Sketchbook,” p. 27.
[v] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.
[vi] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.
[vii] Beckerley, J. Letter. 24 April 05.
Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105
Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22