There is nothing “ye olde” about

Rutherglen Repertory Theatre

Written and Compiled by Norman Rae

On the evening of Tuesday 2nd May 1939 MSU Repertory Theatre performed the opening night of its first production, Merton Hodge’s The Wind and the Rain. This was the starting point of the theatre group that would, within a few years, evolve into Rutherglen Repertory Theatre. However, the founding of the theatre, its location in Rutherglen, and its development in these early years were far from straightforward.

The MSU Repertory Theatre was named after its founder Molly Urquhart, but Rutherglen was not in fact her first choice of location; she had previously attempted to open a theatre in the Gorbals, this failed when her husband’s employers, the Glasgow Police Force, objected to the wife of one of their number setting up a business in the city. The Royal Burgh of Rutherglen presented an opportunity to get around this obstacle (Murdoch, 1981, p.57). In particular, a disused congregational church (The Scotsman, 1950) offered an ideal setting:

‘...the church in East Main Street was an exceedingly fine building in which the exigencies of ecclesiastical architecture met those required for a theatre amazingly closely. It had a fine, square-set area without transepts. Rows of pews afforded spartan but adequate accommodation for, at most, about two hundred and fifty people... ...the aisles led towards two doors that opened on to a staircase which led down to the vestibule, now to be the foyer. There was a room on “stage” level that would make the women’s dressing room, and another below that would accommodate the men.’ (Murdoch, 1981, p.58).

The MSU therefore started with the advantage of suitable and centrally located premises in which to perform. These had the added benefit that they were not expensive to rent, the owner John Paterson demanding only a nominal sum, an advantage given that Molly Urquhart was starting the theatre with £300 of her own money (p.59).
The first night was quite successful; although the theatre was not full, the audience was well over one hundred. However this was not always so; during the first year: ‘...the audience were often outnumbered by the cast on stage...’ (p.66). Present members of Rutherglen Rep might sympathise with this predicament. Indeed, the MSU’s second play, The Lady With the Lamp, was performed to only 24 people on the opening night. These difficulties clearly did not dampen the enthusiasm of the participants as over the four years of the MSU 97 plays were performed at a rate, during the season, of a play every second week (p.90). Table 1 provides a list of some of the plays performed by the M.S.U. Not all the details are known but it gives a sense of what was being performed.

Dates

Title

Author

Tuesday 2nd May – Saturday 6th May 1939

The Wind and the Rain

Merton Hodge

Monday 8th May – Saturday 13th May 1939

The Lady With the Lamp

Reginald Berkeley

 

Green Cars Go East

Paul Vincent Carroll

 

Murder at Blackstone

T.M. Watson

6th October –  ? 1939

Tullycairn

Joe Corrie

Tuesday 19th December 1939 – Wednesday 3rd January 1940

The Babes in the Wood

 

19th January 1940 – ?

Close Quarters adapted from Attentat

Adapted by Gilbert Lennox from W.O. Somin’s work

 

A Corner in hearts

Winifred Carter

2nd March 1940 – ?

Cobbler’s Luck

Joe Corrie

May 1940

The Tinker’s Road

Joe Corrie

 

Plot Twenty-One

Rodney Ackland

June 1940

Ghosts at Glentaggart

 

June 1940

Bedtime Story

Walter Ellis

1940

The Storm in the Manse

John Pollock

1940

The Drum of Drumdarg

 

November 1940

Green Cars Go East

Paul Vincent Carroll

 

Little Woman

 

Christmas 1940

Hunky Dory

 

Early 1941

Gallows Glorious

Ronald Gow

 

When We Were Married

J.B. Priestly (Scottish version by James Woodburn)

 

The Income and Let Go the Painter

Joe Corrie; D. Gordon Wright

June 1941

Juno and the Paycock

O’Casey

Monday 15th September – Saturday 20th September 1941

Wee Macgreegor and Cranford

J.J. Bell; Mrs Gaskell

1942

Beneath the Wee Red Lums

T.M. Watsonj

March 1942

Robert’s Wife

St John Ervine

 

I Lived With You

Ivor Novello

 

See the Holly Bush

John Titterington

 

A Touch of Nature

Joe Corrie

June 1942

Things That are Caesar’s

Paul Vincent Carroll

September 1942

The Strings My lord Are False

Paul Vincent Carroll

 

Distinguished Company and Patricia

Ena Lamont; James Oswald Hunter

 

What Every Woman Knows

Barrie

 

Beneath the Wee Red Lums

T.M. Watson

(cancelled)

Dawn

Joe Corrie

(brought forward)

Third Party Risk

Gilbert Lennox

 

In Time of Strife

Joe Corrie

January 1943

A Sleeping Clergyman

James Bridie

1943

The Far Off Hills

Lennox Robinson

Before Summer

Green Cars Go East

Paul Vincent Carroll

New Season

The Ghost Train

 

 

Mary Rose

J.M. Barrie

 

The Whiteheaded Boy

 

November 1943

George and Margret

 

December 1943

Laburnum Grove

J.B. Priestly

Christmas 1943

Marigold

L. Allen Harker and F.R. Pryor

May 1944

Alex Goes to Amulree

Guy McCrone

 

Juno and the Paycock

 

Italics denotes information which is uncertain.
Source: Murdoch, Helen (1981).

One cannot contemplate the challenge that this presented without considering the circumstances in which the theatre was attempting to operate.  It had opened just months before the outbreak of the Second World War and Murdoch notes that: ‘The blackout conditions had made people wary of going out at night…’ (p.79).  The impact is stark when examining programmes from the period.  In the programme for Wee Macgreegor in September 1941 the following message is printed:

‘Air-Raid Precaution

If an air raid warning be received during the performance the audience will be informed from the stage.  The warning will not necessarily mean that a raid will take place, and in any case it is not likely to occur for at least five minutes.  Those desiring to leave the theatre may do so, though they are advised in their own interests to remain in the building.

The performance will continue.’

(MSU Repertory Theatre, 1941).

It is perhaps testament to the efforts of the theatre, and of the determination of the audience to preserve a degree of normality, that they managed to continue in such circumstances.  Murdoch (1981) describes this scenario: ‘…the audiences who decided to stay in the theatre got the performance in toto, despite the extraneous noises-off of the world conflict through which they were living.  Raids usually began about nine o’clock, after dark.  Sometimes the long level note of the “all-clear” signal did not sound till well after midnight.  On some of these occasions the audience were entertained by the company in an impromptu entertainment of songs, recitations, jokes, till it was safe to make their way home.’ (p.93).  Not only did the company have to perform continue through the air raids but they also had to remain until it ended and provide further entertainment in the meantime.

The external situation is reflected further in the programme for Wee Macgreegor.  On a separate page there is a large ‘V’, and beneath this the message:

‘How difficult is the outlook to-day compared with a year ago.  There is no excuse for-light-hearted optimism, but there is reason for gratitude.  The bravery and endurance of our British peoples in the Forces and in civil life justify proud thanksgiving.  We can be profoundly grateful for the rallying of the great American nation to our aid, and the heroic Russian resistance.  We shall pray for victory and the coming – speedy if it-may be, delayed if it must be, but yet-sure – of a righteous and lasting peace.’ (MSU Repertory Theatre, 1941).

Such a passage would seem incongruous if found in a programme today, but is symptomatic of the enormous effect that the war was having on people, and therefore by extension on the MSU.

An added problem came in the form of members of the company being called-up for war service.  In the programme for Green Cars Go East in November 1940 there is a long tribute to ‘Mr Douglas Swanson’ which notes that: ‘On Friday last Mr Douglas Swanson left to join the Royal Air Force and thus the M.S.U. feels the absence of another faithful member.’ (M.S.U. Repertory Theatre, 1940).  Murdoch (1981) also describes this as affecting the theatre (p.94).  This further demonstrates how difficult it must have been to sustain a theatre company in Rutherglen at that time.

The war also impinged upon the choice of plays.  In 1942 the company intended to perform Dawn by Joe Corrie, however the Lord Chamberlain’s Office withheld the licence due to the play’s war related subject matter.  More generally, new Scottish writing was favoured by the M.S.U. in addition to some more established plays (p.110).  Joe Corrie was one of several writers whose work was frequently performed.  In addition, there was T.M. Watson, a Glasgow journalist, whose plays included Beneath the Wee Red Lums which was set in Rutherglen and premiered by the M.S.U. (the M.S.U. premièred 15 plays over four years).  Also notable was the Irish writer Paul Vincent Carroll; among his plays performed in Rutherglen was The Strings, My Lord, are False, which was given its British première by the M.S.U.  Another of his plays, Green Cars Go East, was one of the most successful that the company presented.  They did so on at least three occasions, the first of these being the third play that they put on in 1939.  On its second production a total of 890 people came to see the play (p.91).  In the programme for this production its says:

‘In response to many requests we are presenting for the second time Mr Paul Vincent Carroll’s “Green Cars Go East.”  This play reflects the humour and pathos of the folks in the poorer parts of the City, amongst whom Mr Carroll lived when he was teaching in the Glasgow Schools, and the people are interpreted with great sympathy and tenderness.

Mr Paul Vincent Carroll, who is a regular Patron of this Theatre, lives in Carmyle, and is also the author of “Shadow and Substance” and “The White Steed,” which plays gained the highest award in the United States in their respective years.’ (M.S.U. Repertory Theatre, 1940).

This demonstrates the close connection between the writer and the theatre particularly given that he lived relatively locally.

At this time the theatre was essentially amateur, although its actors included, on occasions, professionals as well as some who would go on to be professionals: ‘During the war years its actors had been amateurs who were given a token payment and included, besides Molly Urquhart herself, Duncan Macrae and Archie Duncan (who both appeared in the second play), Gordon Jackson and Eileen Herlie.’ (Hutchison, 1977, p.100).  Murdoch (1981) adds: ‘Nicholas Parsons and Gordon Jackson were two extremely talented aspiring actors, who were finding the best possible way of obtaining a basic training for their subsequent careers that were to take them to the West End Stage.  Elsie Russell, who became well known both as a radio actress and as a journalist, later held a key position as announcer for Woman’s Hour from B.B.C. Scotland.’ (p.119).  Therefore, while the M.S.U. may not have been able to operate as a fully professional theatre, it did contain a range of talented actors.

By the 1944 the family of the buildings owner, who had died in 1941, decided to sell it.  It was available for £2000, a sum far too great for Molly Urquhart to contemplate given the limited success, financially, of the theatre (p.128).  Approaching the Council for the use of the Town Hall proved unsuccessful (p.131) and when the opportunity came to move to the new Citizen’s theatre in Glasgow she took it (p.131).  That was the end of the M.S.U. Repertory Theatre; it was not however the end of the theatre in Rutherglen.

The company was reformed, and for the first time adopted the name Rutherglen Repertory.  Hutchison (1977) explains: ‘A few months later, however, a fund was started and the Rutherglen Repertory Company was registered with the aim of founding “a theatre for the development of the drama and the dramatic art in Scotland and to encourage a national drama through the production of plays of Scottish life and character”.  The theatre re-opened and in time was able to engage some full-time professional staff and on occasion to hire professional actors or, more often, pay its part-timers a wage of some sort.’ (p.100).  This new or continuing group were therefore able to buy the theatre building: ‘…the plan evolved by a group of the actors who had decided, for various reasons, to retain their amateur status, to purchase the building as a community enterprise, was well supported by the town and the Council.’ (Murdoch, 1981, p.131).  In a sense then, the theatre now became more firmly located in Rutherglen.

This disruption brings into focus an interesting possibility; that Rutherglen had never entirely taken to this theatre while it was known as the M.S.U.  Murdoch notes that: ‘…early support from Glasgow dwindled while Ruglonians had not yet entirely taken the venture to their hearts.  Rutherglen did not like to be considered a second choice, and while the theatre was intent on becoming integrated with the community, the community proceeded to “gang warily”.’ (p.79).  This is not to say that support was lacking completely as clearly there were productions that were very successful, so perhaps the effect can be over-emphasised.  Nevertheless, a short article published on 20th May 1946 is worth quoting in full: ‘There is nothing “ye olde” about the Rutherglen Repertory Theatre.  It is in an ex-church hall, and it is a typical example of how Rutherglen will rally round a native enterprise.  When this theatre was started it was known as the M.S.U. after Mary S. Urquhart (now of the Citizen’s Theatre) who founded it.  But it didn’t do really well until Rutherglen men took it over.  Now it puts on world-premieres when it feels like it.’ (Unknown, 1946).  It emphasises that it is now a ‘native enterprise’ as distinct from its earlier incarnation run by an outsider; furthermore it is only successful now that ‘Rutherglen men’ are running it.  There may be two sentiments underlying this: one is a gendered position that it should not have been run by a woman and the other is the resentment over the fact that it was not the first choice for Molly Urquhart, and possibly that she had now left to return to Glasgow with the Citizen’s.

Table 2

Incomplete List of Productions of Rutherglen Repertory Theatre 1944-1959

Dates

Title

Author

 

Mrs Mulligan’s Millions

Edward McNulty

Monday 26th December 1949 or 1955 – Saturday 14th January 1950 or 1956

“Whigmaleeries” or (“Capers Beneath the Wee Rid Lums”)

John Law and Bill Craig

Saturday 17th June – Saturday 24th June 1950

The Chiltern Hundreds

William Douglas Home

Saturday 22nd September – Saturday 6th October 1951

The Snarling Beggar

Iain Hamilton

13th October – 20th October 1951

The Wishing Well

E. Eynon Evan

27th October – 3rd November 1951

Black Chiffon

Lesley Storm

10th November – 17th November 1951

O’Flaherty, V.C. and The Browning Version

George Bernard Shaw; Terrance Rattigan

Saturday 22nd December 1951– Saturday 12th January 1952

Glaikit Fair

Larry Marshall

Saturday 20th June – Saturday 27th June 1953

Pick – Up Girl

Elsa Shelley

Saturday 15th May – Saturday 22nd May 1954

Common Property

Mathew Service

Monday 7th June – Saturday 12th June 1954

Bachelors are Bold

T.M. Watson

Saturday 14th May – Saturday 21st May 1955

The Open

A.B. Paterson

Saturday 28th April – Saturday 12th May 1956

Come On In – A New Summer Musical Revue

 

Italics denotes information which is uncertain.

Sources: Rutherglen Repertory Theatre (1949/1955?), Rutherglen Repertory Theatre (1950), Rutherglen Repertory Theatre (1951a), Rutherglen Repertory Theatre (1951b), Rutherglen Repertory Theatre (1951c), Rutherglen Repertory Theatre (1953), Rutherglen Repertory Theatre (1954a), Rutherglen Repertory Theatre (1954b), Rutherglen Repertory Theatre (1955), Rutherglen Repertory Theatre (1956)

Nevertheless, whatever the motivations, there certainly seems to be some evidence that the theatre was quite successful in its first few years under its new name.  An article in the Scotsman on February 18th 1950 reports that a 48 page brochure has been published to mark the first five years, and that: ‘…the new regime was so successful that 23 plays were staged in the first year.  In the first five years, 93 productions have been given.’ (The Scotsman, 1950).  This is not as many as the 97 plays produced in four years by the M.S.U. but is still very impressive.  Table 2 gives a limited selection of plays performed in this period.  Also, the programme for Bachelors are Bold in 1954 provides a reminder for the audience: ‘Don’t forget our season in Troon, during July and August.’ (Rutherglen Repertory Theatre, 1954a).  The company was clearly prolific, operating beyond its own theatre.  Returning to the Scotsman article:

‘Community cooperation, as well as the enthusiasm of individuals, has been the secret of success.  The old building has been readapted and reseated.  With a seating capacity of 240, it is still on the small side, but the directors aim at building a circle above the auditorium which will add about 100 more seats.’ (The Scotsman, 1950).

Therefore, there is a clear indication that the theatre was successful at this time with a demand for more seats; we can also note that the building has been improved with the church pews having been replaced.  However, the attempted expansion would appear to have been difficult to enact.  A slightly earlier article from the Evening Citizen on May 4th 1949 is headed ‘Wanted £7000’:

‘I have come from a theatre that is looking for £7000 and does not know where to find it.

Rutherglen’s Rep company are at the end of their first year’s tenancy of the theatre they took over from Molly Urquhart.  They have made it a comfortable theatre.  But it holds only 236 people.  They say some of their productions could draw in another 150 theatre goers.  They could seat the extra if they build a circle.’ (Evening Citizen, 1949).

A discrepancy is evident with Murdoch’s assertion that they had bought the building, as here the suggestion is that they are tenants.  The numbers here also seem to vary slightly from those in the Scotsman article the following year, perhaps by this time they have reassessed what is technically or financially possible and reduced the ambition for the circle from 150 to 100 seats.  Finance was certainly a problem:

‘Rutherglen’s council do not feel disposed to give financial aid to the theatre.  Donations do not come easily either.

Three weeks ago a touring company went around the West of Scotland with Matthew Service’s “Common Property.”

It was hoped they would come home showing a profit.  But the tour only helped the theatre’s reputation, did not make any difference to the bank book.

But hope springs eternal in this reportorial breast.  They will go out again to the towns they have already visited, and hope that by then more people will know more about Rutherglen’s Rep.’ (Evening Citizen, 1949).

Nonetheless, it would seem that the company were eventually successful in raising the funds.  The programme for The Snarling Beggar in September 1951 includes a message with the title ‘Welcome Home’:

‘It is with great pleasure and a certain amount of humility that we welcome you back to our theatre.  Much thought and careful deliberation has been given to the reconstruction, and we hope that you will agree that we now have, not only an intimate and comfortable Theatre but a home better fitted for the presentation of Drama in all its phases.  We realise that such a home would not be possible but for the generosity of our patrons and friends too numerous to mention in detail, but to whom we now say, “Thank you,” in all sincerity.  It is only fitting that a special word of thanks must be expressed to the Member of Parliament, Provost, Council, and citizens of the Royal Burgh of Rutherglen for the inspiring and generous help they gave in this venture.’ (Rutherglen Repertory Theatre, 1951b, p.7).

We can conclude from this rather convoluted passage that, not only was the work completed (though whether this included the circle is not clear), but also that the council must eventually have relented and offered some sort of contribution.

There are some further indications of the relationship the theatre had with the community around this time.  For example, in the programme for Glaikit Fair, the source of tickets is identified as ‘Morrison’s Travel Service, Cambuslang’ (Rutherglen Repertory Theatre, 1951a), in addition to the theatre box office.  Also, for the 1954 production of Common property the programme states: ‘Furs kindly loaned by the Fur Salon, Main Street.’ (Rutherglen Repertory Theatre, 1954b).  In addition, in the programme for The Chiltern Hundreds Gilbert McAllister Esq. MP is listed as one of the honorary vice presidents (Rutherglen Repertory Theatre, 1950).  These are small pieces of evidence that are essentially anecdotal, but they give a suggestion of a company with good connections to the community, and perhaps more deeply rooted than in the days of the M.S.U.

The only sign of trouble is a passage in the 1955 programme for The Open: ‘This is the last play of the present season.  May we thank our patrons for the loyal support they have given us in difficult times.’ (Rutherglen Repertory Theatre, 1955).  There is no indication of what the cause of these ‘difficult times’ was.  However, four years later in 1959 the theatre closed (Hutchison, 1977, p.112); there may be no connection, on the other hand this suggestion of trouble in 1955 may have been the beginning of a decline that led to the demise of the company.  While being less precise in the date, Murdoch (1981) comments: ‘…it was only in the nineteen-sixties, when costs escalated beyond control that it was sold and became in succession, a gas board showroom, a carpet shop and finally the club premises for supporters of Clyde Football team.’ (p.131).  Whatever the details of the reasons behind its decline, 1959 marked the end of this phase of Rutherglen Repertory theatre as a semi-professional company with its own theatre in the town.