Tag Archives: Dick Wittington

The Intrepid Theatre-Goer

By Sears Eldredge

Once he was back on his feet, Capt. Wilkinson lost no time catching as many shows currently playing as possible. First, he saw the pantomime, Dick Wittington, which he called “first class.” It was so good he went back a second time. Then he saw Roman Rackets, which he thought only “fairly good,” followed by Hay Fever: ‘“Hay Fever’ was undoubtedly outstanding, even comparing it with English Rep. standards!”, he pronounced.[i] Finally, Wilkinson went to see the revue Shooting High. “It was a sort of wild west show,” he wrote. “The outstanding item was an apache dance in which ‘Judy’ Garland was brilliant.”[ii] He heard that the St. George Players were going to do a revival of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the near future, which he definitely planned to attend.”[iii]

Hay Fever

Of all the shows currently on view in Changi, it was Daltry’s production of Hay Fever that garnered the most praise. Nelson, who had received a special invitation to the premiere, thought: “It was simply marvellous, at least the equal of performances I have attended in London. Many of the artists are professionals.”[iv]

Program cover for Hay Fever. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

David wrote that it was “beautifully produced and one of the best shows we’ve had. I intend to see it again.”[v] Huxtable, thought it “witty and amusing” and went on to say:

Major Daltry, overcoming all difficulties, produced a first-class show and the acting was very good. John Wood, the Australian, was Miss Bliss and Major Bradshaw her husband. We had a good laugh and all agreed that we had often paid ten bob to see shows of a far lower standard in peace time.[vi]

Caricature of John Wood as “Miss Bliss.”[1]  Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Wilkinson elaborated further on his initial reactions to the production:

The outstanding show was “Hey Fever” . . .. The stage setting was wonderful and so were all the dresses etc. They had a first class cast. The female lead was taken by John Wood. He is an Australian who has had professional stage and film experience in England. Bradshaw was in it and Douglas Rye of the Croyden Ren. [?] Since we went up country a number of new “females” have cropped up and most of them are first class actors.[vii]

Caricature of Willis Toogood. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

One of these “new ‘females’” was Willis Toogood, who played “Myra Arundel.” His first appearance as a female impersonator was in the Glade Theatre’s production of Old King Cole back in 1942. Oliver Thomas (originally in “The Optimists Concert Party”), played Simon Bliss. Thomas remembered, “We did 35 performances of this.”[viii]

We obviously had to make do with what furniture & props we could get together. Some things had to be made e.g. a ‘barometer’ which falls off the wall & breaks in ‘Hay Fever’ when one of the unhappy house-guests ‘taps’ it . . .  there is breakfast scene — edible things had to be made out of rice e.g. both the slices of ‘toast’ in the rack and the small yellow balls of ‘butter.’ We were so hungry that it was impossible not to be very excited eating this substitute food, and the audience knew it & didn’t let the fact you were actually eating go by unnoticed. Hunger was the perpetual condition of our being Japanese POW’s.[ix]


[1] The artist did not identify the person caricatured, but I assume this is John Wood as he always played a blond female.


[i] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 February ’44.

[ii] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 February ’44.

[iii] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 February.

[iv] Nelson, 127.

[v] David, 55.

[vi] Huxtable, 150.

[vii] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 Feb. ’44.

[viii] Thomas, Fax, 31 March 01, 2.

[ix] Thomas, Fax, 31 March 01, 5.

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

Changi Concert Parties: January–May ‘44

By Sears Eldredge

Because of the huge resettlement of the POWs into a smaller perimeter that had taken place during the latter days of 1943, the number of performance venues in Changi were now limited to five: The A.I.F. Theatre, Command’s indoor and outdoor theatres, and the Con Depot’s outdoor theatre, as well as the YMCA music marquee—all in the Selarang Area. There is no mention of another performance in The Kokonut Grove Theatre in the records. But a new outdoor venue—The Phoenix Theatre— appeared in January in Hanky Park, which was, according to Huxtable, “over near the Malaya Command building half a mile away, over by No. 3 gate.”[i] These POWs were most likely from the Volunteer Forces who had been in the Southern Area and Up Country. The entertainers called themselves “The Red Rose Players.” Their orchestra was directed by Geoffrey C. Knight and their Stage Manager was S. J. Cole. The Phoenix became another of the Command Theatres.

Playbill for January/February ’44. Dick Wittington, at the A.I.F. Theatre, and Aladdin at Command’s indoor theatre, would finish their runs towards the end of the January. Meanwhile, the Variety show, Roman Rackets, written by Graham Sauvage and produced by S. J. Cole was on at the new Phoenix Theatre at Hanky Park. On 25 January, Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, produced by Osmond Daltry and directed by Chris Buckingham opened at Command’s indoor theatre.

In early February, Shooting High, a Western Farce written by Les Connell & McArthur and produced by Keith Stevens went up at the A.I.F. Theatre, followed by a Variety Show, Bits & Pieces. Huxtable, had this to say about the A.I.F. shows he saw:

The shows are always bright and amusing, if somewhat lowbrow – clever singing, dancing, female impersonations (John Woods) and conjuring tricks (Sid Piddington).[ii] 

The Phoenix Theatre’s show for February was P. G. Wodehouse’s, Good Morning, Bill, produced by John Burne.


[i] Huxtable, 153.

[ii] Huxtable, 153.

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

Christmas Pantomimes, 1943

By Sears Eldredge

Program cover for Aladdin. Desmond Bettany. Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

The former Command Players in their new Little Theatre (formerly Smokey Joe’s) mounted Aladdin: A Christmas Pantomime written by Rich Goodman with a huge cast featuring Norman Backshall as Aladdin, John White as the Princess, and Hugh Elliot at Widow Twankey. It included a Chorus and a “Ballet” of eight harem dancers. Musical arrangements were by J. J. Porter, scenic design was by Derek Cooper, and costumes were by Fred Cooper. Chris Buckingham was the Stage Manager.

The A.I.F. Concert Party opened their pantomime, Dick Whittington and His Cat, on New Year’s Eve. It was produced by John Wood with a book by Leslie Greener. Settings were by Murray Griffin, costumes by Teddy Druitt, lighting by Clarrie Barker, and music/lyrics by Ray Tullipan and Slim De Grey with Bill Middleton directing the orchestra.

Performed by concert party regulars: Keith Stevens played Dick Whittington, his Cat was played by Bob Picken, Ron Caple played Widow Twankey[1]; and Doug Peart, the Sergeant Major.

Dick Wittington and His Cat. A.I.F. Pantomime. Xmas, 1943. Painting by Murray Griffin. AWM.

Both shows were huge successes—just what the M.O.s’ ordered for sick and recovering troops. And so ends 1943. In early 1944, the POWs in Changi would begin the third year of their captivity.


[1] Yes, Widow Twankey appears in more than one pantomime, so there can always be a clothes washing scene where suggestive remarks are made about the state of the underwear.  

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