Category Archives: Sime Road Camp

Further Shows at Sime Road

By Sears Eldredge

Next on The Barn’s Spring Season was Rag Bag Revue produced by Horner, Roberts, and W. Hogg-Fergusson. This is the first show in which the Dutch/Indonesian female impersonator, Henri Ecoma, appeared—dancing and singing “La Conga.” Beckerley, who liked to sing as well as act, became part of the “Barn Quartet.”

I liked singing. So did Joe Bernstein, a professional tenor, Ken Luke, headmaster of a Malayan public school, bass, George Sprod, Australian Smith’s Weekly artist and cartoonist alto, and me . . . somewhere between Joe and George; I quote Joe In short, the Barn Quartet. Under Bernstein we were really good. We sang in every show except plays.[i]

. . . .

Joe wrote music and made sure we learned the score. A hard master Joe! When he put his hands on his hips with that pained look and the shake of his head, we three knew we [were] for it . . . not infrequently. We were good because Joe was a professional.[ii]

Beckerley also appeared in a number of skits, and even Searle appeared in two offerings.

When not working on the sets I did quite a few of standing in as understudy for the young female roles: Man of Destiny and Bird in Hand were two at Sime Road. . .. Actors were often unable to rehearse being out on working parties. . .. I could invariably fiddle my stay in camp to fit with a rehearsal when needed. Searle did not favour my, I quote, ‘stage struck desire to appear in plays’. I reminded him of that when he and I were cast in “Hamlet goes Hollywood,”[1] I was Ophelia. . . Ron, Laertes cum American reporter. I come on stage with straw in my hair, nursing a bunch of flowers. As I cross the stage, I offer each flower to the audience: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.  There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts. There’s fennel that’s for you.”  (NOW HOLDING OUT A CHINA JAR) And [there’s] sulpher, that’s for scabies!” Audience loved it. Ron was good as the American reporter. He too loved it. His American accent was almost a Southern drawl, quite in keeping with the comedy. Stage struck.[iii]

The next show of the Spring Season was an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s “Masterpiece of the Macabre,” Rope, produced by Jon Mackwood and W. Hogg Fergusson, which played between March 28 and April 1. The Dutch performer, Fritz Scholer, appears again in the cast. Then, on 4 April, Music Thru the Years, opened. The show was a cavalcade of music compiled by the pianist Bill Williams with songs, sketches, and dances. Beckerley took the part of a female character:

In “Music through the Years” Alan at five feet two. Alan is the black whiskered villain to my five feet nine damsel in distress. I sing, “No, no, a thousand times No, you cannot buy my caress. No, no a thousand times no, I’d rather die than say yes.” Alan, “Marry me or your father will die!” Me, “Oh, poor father!” Alan, “Into the water with him!”  Me, “Oh, but he can’t swim!” Alan, “Well, now’s his time to bloody learn.”[iv]

The Barn Quartet sang a number of times in the show: “One song, ‘Comrades in Arms’ was a sort of best seller; the audiences not allowing us to retire before a repeat of it. Stirring stuff! I liked it so no chore for me.”[v]

This show was followed on 11 April by Nuts and Wine: A Gourmet’s Revue, which contained “Bolero” and “Lady of Spain,” danced by Henri Ecoma.

Caricature of Henri Ecoma. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

P. G. Wodehouse’s comedy, Good Morning, Bill, was scheduled for 18 April, but for some reason it was replaced by John Drinkwater’s comedy, Bird in Hand. And the four original one act plays by Lt. W. H. Ferguson that were next on the schedule were also canceled. Scotch Broth, a hastily cobbled together Variety Show, went on instead, opening on 25 April. The Highland costumes are credited to Besser & Burn. And here again, was Henri Ecoma. This time he was playing the native seductress, “Tondeleyo” [sic] from the 1923 London hit play, White Cargo. Beckerley had distinct memories of Ecoma:

. . . Henri on stage was a girl, he didn’t have to convince anybody. Anybody can put on a wig, tart himself up etc., etc., but strip him and confront an audience in a dance designed to arouse sexual desires is something that made Henri unique . . . he moved like a girl anyway. He also had a disconcerting way of switching to Dutch when he got excited, which was not infrequently and expecting us to keep up, as it were.[vi]

In early May, The Barn Entertainment Committee announced their Summer Season, which would contain the usual variety shows, plays, etc.—even a Dutch show—a night of Shakespeare, and an A.I.F. Concert. But their plans for a Summer Season were scuttled when the Japanese announced that they were all moving to Changi Gaol to replace the European civilian men, women, and children who had been interned there since the fall of Singapore and were now to take up residence at Sime Road.

Rice and Shine will be taking a short break in the New Year, but will return to continue the Changi story, plus cover a few other locations, soon!


[1] A comic sketch in Rag Bag Revue.


[i] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[ii] Beckerley, J. Ibid.

[iii] Beckerley, J. Ibid.

[iv] Beckerley. J. Ibid.

[v] Beckerley, J. Ibid.

[vi] Beckerley, J. Letter. 24 April 05.

Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean

By Sears Eldredge

Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean, opened The Barn Theatre on 22 February and ran for four performances with packed houses.[1] The “burlesque pantomime” was written by Alan Roberts, who took over as sole producer because Horner was suffering with septic sores on his legs and feet.[i] Searle designed the costumes and settings; the wigs were made by Dick Trouvat. Given the cast of characters, the panto seems to have been a mashup of characters from different traditional pantos with additional fictional and film personalities, as there are characters in it called Widow Twankey, Dick Whittington, The Genii, Groucho Marx, Prince Yesume,[2] Gestapo Chief, and Sherlock Holmes. The British and Australian cast numbered 15 with “Cinderella” played by Jon Mackwood and Jack Horner as the “King of Khanburi.”[3]

Costume designs for Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean. Ronald Searle. ©1944 Reproduced by kind permission of The Ronald Searle Cultural Estate Ltd and The Sayle Literary Agency

Searle’s whimsical designs for the costumes (see above) contain detailed identifying the character, the actor playing the role, and on what fabrics or sources to use in their construction. Beckerley played “The Court Magician” second from left in the bottom row. The originals are in full color.

According to Reginald Burton, Searle even designed a coach for Cinderella’s trip to the ball: “They had a sort of mock-up of a coach which was really a cardboard cutout that they pulled across. And I think Cinderella walked behind it looking out of a window.”[ii] After the last performance, Horner crowed that ‘“Cinderella etc.’ has been a howling success.”[iii]


[1] The soya bean in the title is a reference to the soya beans the POWs were given with every issue of rice, which were not to everyone’s liking. Burton, R. 134.

[2] Yasume – Japanese word for “rest.”

[3] Kanburi. The Hospital Rehabilitation Camp at Kanchanaburi in Thailand. Their last camp in Thailand.


[i] Horner, R. 118.

[ii] Burton, R. “Interview.” 35-36.

[iii] Horner, R. 119.

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

The Barn Theatre

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]

Royal Airforce O.R. John Beckerley.
Courtesy of John Beckerley.

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

“The Cathay Players”

By Sears Eldredge

Anticipating the return of the remainder of “H” Force in late 1943, Ronald Horner was posted from Changi to Sime Road to encourage entertainments and to be their Officer in Charge. On 9 December, he wrote: “Am in charge of entertainments here, so far can’t get hold of a piano, but we have an open-air theatre that needs patching up, but has a natural auditorium of a grass bank that will hold 3 or 4,000.”[i]

Caricature of Ronald Horner. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

After what they had been through Up Country, the POWs at Sime Road were eager to purge their memories of that experience and release their energies in more positive activity, so Horner was able to quickly established a small concert party, “The Cathay Players,” and started to produce shows. Unfortunately, it was the rainy season, so shows were frequently rained out.[ii] But the weather cleared for Christmas and Horner noted that their holiday show “was a great success” with an audience of about 1,500 in attendance.[iii]  

Among the musicians and theatre performers at Sime Road was the artist, Ronald Searle, who recorded the playbill for a Variety Show that went up on January 9th. This document tells us who those first performers in the “Cathay Concert Party” were. The show opened with the “Attap Serenaders,” followed by the comedian Charlie ‘Arvey. Then came Bill Williams as a “personality vocalist” followed by the Dutch Illusionist, Trouvat. Next on the playbill came the blackface comic duo Long and Whelan, followed by the Australian cartoonist George Sprod singing, and closing with Australian “Professor” Alan Roberts.[iv]

Royal Air Force O.R. John Beckerley, who had been captured on Java, became good friends with Alan Roberts at Sime Road.

Alan Roberts: university lecturer and known by all as The Prof! Very small, you could tap him on the head when he got cross: most of the time. He was most intellectual and most scathing with those who were not: like most of us. I had a long face, [and] a disciplinarian—an Army Provost Marshal Major—also had a long face.  Known as Desperate Dan he also had a foot wide ginger moustache.  Alan Roberts wrote a funny sketch where I as a female fortuneteller complete with large glass ball telling his fortune: how he’s going to get his hands on the good goodies stored wherever. ‘Much fiddling’, I say to Alan’s delight. “Just what I want to hear,” says Alan. “How do I get my hands on it?” LIGHTS GO OUT. . . THEN ON. I’m standing before him complete with a foot wide ginger moustache. Alan, “Good God, Desperate Dan!” The major was not a friendly man . . . standing ovation for me.[v]

    “Desperate Dan”
Caricature of Alec Morris Dann.
Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

The next week, the Variety Show showcased Trouvat with a 20-minute hypnotism act. Thereafter, the concert party began to produce weekly shows on Saturday nights.

Also at Sime Road was a Dutch/Indonesian café called “The Flying Dutchman” in Hut #4 where you could buy coffee and Indonesian finger foods. Here is where Ronald Searle displayed his posters for shows as well as his costume designs and set renderings.[vi]

By 17 January, the concert party had acquired a piano but they still needed a curtain. And they had grown in number to the point where multiple shows were in rehearsal simultaneously. Horner reports, “I’m producing ‘Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean,’ we also have Shaw’s ‘Man of Destiny’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ in rehearsal as well as ideas for a ‘Ragbag Revue’ . . . Jap interpreter has asked for words and music of my ‘When we’re free’ song—as I haven’t yet sung it here, I wonder how he’s got to hear it.”[vii]

On the 24th, there was a piano recital by Bill Williams, which greatly impressed Australian POW James Boyle:

With us at Sime road was Bill Williams — a sergeant in the RAF and a man in a million. He too could keep the interest of his audience from his first number to the last, and seemed capable of catering for all tastes. Bill’s programs usually consisted of popular songs for which he played his own piano arrangements, interspersed with a dash of light classical.[viii]

On 27 January, Horner, pleased with what he had accomplished in way of entertainment, wrote, “The Sat. night variety shows are going with a great bang, we have about 2,000 [in attendance] each time. Sang ‘When we’re Free’ tonight and got the audience to join in.”[ix] Surprisingly enough, the Japanese interpreter who had been given the lyrics had not had the song banned.


[i] Horner, 115.

[ii] Horner, Ibid.

[iii] Horner, Ibid.

[iv] Searle, R. “Notebook,” n.p.

[v] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[vi] Nielsen, Mrs. Jane Booker. Email 6/18/2015.

[vii] Horner, R. 118.

[viii] Boyle, 146-147.

[ix] Horner, 118.

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

Sime Road Camp

By Sears Eldredge

1943:

It was December, 1943, when the Australian, British and Dutch/Indonesian POWs in “H” Force returned to Singapore from Up Country. Because of a housing shortage in Changi, most of these POWs were shuttled to Sime Road Camp. A fellow officer told Lt.-Col. Reginald Burton not to worry about this location: “It was a camp in the open country part of Singapore Island, next to a golf course. It was hutted camp,[1] with showers, lights, proper roads. It sounded like a paradise to me.”[i]

Backstory: 1941-42

Before the war, Sime Road Camp, on the outskirts of Singapore, had been the Headquarters of the British Royal Air Force and then, in early December 1941, it became the Combined Army and Air Force Operations Headquarters Malaya Command—General Percival’s H.Q. –during the brief battles for Malaya and Singapore.

After surrender, Sime Road became an Australian and British POW camp with British officer, Lt.-Col. Philip Toosey, in charge. At some point, a concert party was formed and an outdoor theatre, dubbed the “New Cathay Theatre” was built. The opening performance was on Christmas, 1942.

Program cover for New Cathay Theatre. William Wilder.
Courtesy Anthony Wilder.

Very little is known about the performers or the shows, and the only observation on their content is from Lt. Stephan Alexander: “Our new electricity supply was used to light camp concerts, at which the Aussies proved particularly uninhibited. (“Do you really love me, dear, or is that your revolver I can feel?”)”[2][ii] In early October, 1942, the POWs at Sime Road were sent Up Country to build two bridges over the River Kwai at Tamarkan in Thailand.


[1] Meaning there were wooden buildings.

[2] A direct steal from the American stage and screen star, Mae West.


[i] Burton, 130.

[ii] Alexander, 91.

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