They could be any group of pensioners enjoying an afternoon out. But they are not. Despite the laughs and the giggles they are practising to entertain others.
The 50 Something Theatre Company has been wowing audiences for more than a decade with their fast-moving show of songs, poems and sketches – and every member, as the name implies, is over 50.
All, in fact, are retired and what holds them together is the camaraderie of performing.
When I interrupted their practice session on Thursday afternoon in the annexe alongside Burnley Youth Theatre, in Queen’s Park Road, Burnley, they were warming up for their next performance in a church hall in Cliviger.
Bookings come thick and fast – sometimes too fast for these veterans of the stage – who intersperse foreign holidays and looking after grandchildren with entertaining whenever and wherever the call comes.
David Rushton, the secretary, has been in it from the start, when Burnley Borough Council pumped cash into the formation of a team of volunteers to put together sketches, songs and poems, to help the police highlight doorstep crime, and the health service to try and improve lifestyle among the elderly.
Their fun performances make it easier for elderly groups to grasp the necessary facts and make changes in their lives.
But when the council halted the project a couple of years later the musical thespians decided to carry on performing. “We have since become a concert party and thoroughly enjoy it,” said David.
Further impetus came when Lorna Greaves moved back to England from Spain after her husband died. A talented professional musician, trained at the Royal School of Music, she had been enjoying retirement on the Costas with a group of professional actors and singers who provided entertainment for sun-blessed audiences.
Returning to England she discovered the 50 Something Theatre Company and her musical ability and coaching gave a boost to the two dozen or so folk who gathered for their weekly practice with an occasional performance.
“I decided I wanted to give something back to music and this is now also great fun and brings a lot of happiness to others,” she explained. The concerts they produce last for about an hour and include short sketches, poems, solos and group singing. “We have a wonderful time and so do those listening, who often join in,” she added. As Lorna pointed out, she wants the group to be as perfect at what they are doing as is possible within the natural constraints. “We do charge a fee for our services and so we must make sure it is as professional as we can make it.”
The digital piano has to be taken to each venue so gets lifted in and out of the car each time and there is always music to be printed out for each one in the group apart from the normal running expenses necessary for any similar organisation. It is, however, well worth it.
Sandra Burkinshaw is now chairman of the group after just two years. “Lorna came to my church to play the organ when the organist was away and told me about the group and suggested I join,” she says.
“It took me some time to pluck up courage but once there everyone was so friendly and we had such fun that I stayed. “I love singing, but beforejoining the group it was only to myself. Now I don’t mind standing in front of others.”
A seductive performance of All that Jazz demonstrated the point perfectly.
Angela Tyson has been conducting the singing for three months after three and a half years with the company. “I had never conducted anything before but I love it.”
And in slinky costume she also gives a fine performance as she croons through Hernando’s Hideaway.
Sheila and John Garry, one of the couples, were looking for something to do together when they saw an item in a local newspaper mentioning the group. “We have never looked back. It is brilliant,” said Sheila.
Ruth Haygarth heard about it on the Internet site, Streetlife. “I didn’t think I could sing, but it has helped me a lot and I just love coming.”
But it isn’t simply self-indulgent. The company brings a lot of happiness to those for whom they perform.
“The folk at old people’s homes love joining in with our songs,” said Mervyn Hadfield – named ‘The Bard of Burnley’ for his poems in a Lancashire dialect. “When we visit homes with people suffering from Alzheimer’s they find it difficult to hold a conversation with us but love joining in the songs. It brings back warm memories of times past.”
The audiences on the whole are elderly, but they get bookings from younger groups and thoroughly enjoy treading the boards.
The lack of scenery is no problem as they perform in so many places in which it would be difficult to create a proper stage area. They just need somewhere to plug in the microphones and musical instrument.
“They just get up and perform,” said Lorna, “and they do it well and enthusiastically, sometimes with a bit of a costume to add a little effect.”
The youngest member of the group, 57- year-old Marie d’Courland, always enjoyed singing as a child. “I took every opportunity to perform at parties and when we had visitors given the chance,” she said. “But I retired from work early through illness and I heard about the 50 Something and joined. It is so brilliant. I can’t move quickly so don’t get involved in the acting, but I just love to sing and enjoy doing solos. I moved to Rossendale some time ago but still come because it is so fulfilling.”
The group’s only problems are invariably age-related. When I watched them the oldest member, 95-year-old Elsie Foulds, was absent – not very well.
And last Christmas with 12 bookings over a few days of the holiday period it was touch and go, with a few members unable to join in because of illness and others on winter holidays. But, like all performers, the shows went on.
As I left, it was with the whole group belting out Somewhere Over the Rainbow with all the pathos and excitement it raises each Christmas when Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz gets is annual repeat TV showing.
And just as she and her companions followed the Yellow Brick Road to adventure so the 50 Something Theatre Company keep entertaining others – and have a lot of fun at the same time.
Anyone interested in joining the group can turn up at the weekly rehearsals in the annexe alongside Burnley Youth Theatre, in Queen’s Park Road, Burnley each Thursday from 1.15pm to 4pm or telephone Lorna Greaves on 01283 438682. To book the company, telephone Lorna.