Chris (Joe) Bancroft - Gateway Theatre Company

Category: Actor (amateur); Musician; Technician (professional)

Written memories of Chris (Joe) Bancroft

 

When asked if I could write a few words of my memories of this great theatre I realised that to condense into a readable missive would not be a small undertaking and I needed to avoid rambling about those times.

Three things initially spring to mind of my time at the Pomegranate; Meeting so many lifelong friends, appearing nude on the stage(!), and what eventually turned out to be the most precious event of my life.

I decided that more research was needed to clarify my failing thought processes; I have kept all the programmes, posters and other detritus from over thirty years of being involved in theatre in a box in the attic.   It took a while to go through as the memories flooded back with each article I read but eventually I found most of the relevant documents needed to put some kind of hierarchy and timeline to my thoughts.

My association with the Pomegranate must have started early in 1982, I belonged to the Gateway Theatre Company in Heanor, we had gained a reputation for our performances of contemporary Rock Opera of the day and were looking to expand our horizons.  A few of us had been along to see the amazing World Premiere of ‘Rock Star’ with that great cast of Michael Praed, David Easter, Trevor Cooper and Maria Friedman (of course, the Theatre was still the Civic at this time) and we were introduced to the manager, David Kibart.  We were performing ‘Hair’ at Derby Guildhall and, as it was the amateur premiere, were quite keen to introduce our group to wider audiences.  I was also a partner in a sound and light production company ‘Class Sound’ and we had a reputation for good work with amateur companies throughout the local areas of Derby-Heanor-Chesterfield.

Early in 1983 I started to work for the Pomegranate as a casual worker and with my knowledge of the electrical side of theatre gained a position as light and sound technician at NottinghamTrentUniversity in the summer.  My work with the Pomegranate had secured this position so I always have a ‘soft spot’ for those learning times with Stuart, Keith and John. The Theatre Manager was Derek Coleman who had returned after David Kibart had left, we found him to be a great supporter.  1983 became a signature year for me, I particularly enjoyed the fantastic 2-week run of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ in June and July during our preparation for our presentation of ‘Hair’ in September.  We had to rehearse in a variety of venues and to get an idea of the set, we built our full scaffold stage set in the local ChesterfieldCollege and then painstakingly took it down and shipped it via lorries and shopping trolleys to the Theatre.  I particularly remember the strange looks from the shoppers as we struggled with a shopping trolley full of scaffold clips through the centre of town, losing some over every bump in the road and pavement.

The production, for an amateur company, was most challenging.  Initially we had to look like flower-power hippies and we grew our hair, mine was below my shoulders and, I thought, particularly gorgeous!!.  We all had to work on our physique as we knew that most people knew that we would be nude during one scene and we didn’t want to look out of shape.  It was an exciting time for all of us involved, the huge stage with a rake that was new to us and something we had to learn to dance on, ‘star’ dressing rooms and clothes absolutely everywhere.   The performances where a blur in reality, we had incredible sales for the week and outstanding reviews with a feature piece in the Derbyshire Arts & Music magazine.  Two distinct memories of the show remain however, during the nude scene on the first night I removed my white jeans at the back of the set, did the scene amid the smoke and flashing lights and then quickly went to get my jeans back on.  Unfortunately, I had put my jeans down between 2 ‘PAR’ cans and as I started to drag my jeans on both lights came on illuminating me in bright white light, half-dressed and struggling to get my zip up! As I turned to escape this one of the cast who had put a white dressing gown type of garment was dancing towards me and just as the lights came on again his belt gave way and the front of the gown swung wide in full view of everyone.  I had to leave the stage for a few seconds as I couldn’t breathe with laughing!  On another occasion I was singing the lead song ‘Hair’ and had to leave the stage to go into the audience.  I had never performed a matinee before and was unaware of what to expect.  There was a decent audience who were responsive so I decided to do some small talk with members of the audience at the end of the number before going back on stage.  I sat in the main aisle and spoke to the people on either side of me, as my eyes got used to the light I realised the lady on the left had a small child on her knee and was just about to speak to the child when I realised that she in fact had a frozen chicken on her knees!

The following year Gateway returned to the Pomegranate to perform ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.  It was a show we new well and were confident of giving the ‘wow’ factor.  We were more adventurous in that we had a 2 -week booking,  the first time Gateway had undertaken such a long run.  Sales proved to be excellent, the theatre was full and the show received great reviews.  I played Herod, an unexpected honour as the character has to perform a tap dance whilst singing and I had to take tap lessons with Julia Tilley at the Studio Players for weeks.  The day of the first performance I was travelling from Derby to Heanor on my motor bike and a car smashed me off the road damaging the muscles in my right leg.  I phoned Russ (producer) form hospital to let him know of the catastrophe to be asked  ‘you’ll still be OK for Herod tonight, won’t you?’  Needless to say, I took plenty of painkillers and everything went perfectly – it probably improved my dancing!

1985, a year that will stay with me for life.  I had decided to reduce the amount of theatre performance work I was doing and concentrate on the sound and light work.   Gateway had performed ‘Guys and Dolls’ in April and I had not been a part of that.  However, they decided to do a 4-parter consisting of ‘Joseph’, Jesus Christ Superstar, ‘Hair’ and ‘Godspell’  for 4 nights in late September.  I was to appear in ‘Joseph’ and played Benjamin the youngest brother.  Bearing in mind that I was probably the oldest member in the cast, 6’ 3” and around 15 stones it was a daring decision.  So, dressed only in the most enormous nappy to be found, I danced and sang with abandon to the delight of the audience.   I also reprised my lead role in Hair and that was most enjoyable.  However, all of these events pale into insignificance when I recall what happened to me during that run.  After the Wednesday performance we all went down to the bar for a drink to unwind before the journey home and I had reached the bottom of the stairs when I looked toward the bar and saw the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.  She was serving behind the bar so I made a beeline to be served by her.  I gave what I thought would be a winning smile and she smiled back immediately.  For the next half-hour I could not take my eyes off her, I asked Lizzie (now the theatre manager) if she knew her, it transpired that Lizzie and Isabel had been to school together in Richmond, Yorkshire, and that Isabel had returned from Uni and was doing some casual work at the theatre.  I sat on the stairs drinking with a couple of the cast and then noticed Izzie (Isabel) had come to sit next to me.  We ‘hit it off’ immediately and I knew that this was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.  We have now been together for almost 20 years and have a beautiful daughter, Christabel. (Chris & Isabel!)  I have been thrilled with every single minute of our life together and think back many times to the incredibly lucky coincidence that gave us our introduction.

I had started playing in bands and orchestras more by this time so I did not perform with Gateway for many years but played for the shows many times.  In 1988 I went to Uni and started training to be a teacher and that stifled much of my theatre work.  After qualifying I picked up theatre again and worked with many companies in sound and light or playing in the bands.  I played for Gateway’s ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ in 1993.  This was a memorable show for a couple of things,  the plant ‘Audrey 2’ was magnificent and filled the stage but was very difficult to assemble so on the Saturday night I helped take everything down.  We had stacked bits of the plant on the stage near the loading doors when there was a commotion.  It transpired that 4 drunken youths had been walking past the open doors, had seen the head of the plant (which was very large) and had run off with it, we took up the chase and eventually recovered it in the market place.  I often wonder how it must have looked with a huge plant high in the air running across Chesterfield market followed by a gaggle of people shouting to get it back!  People were rolling with laughing all the way.  I also remember the interest the plant generated and we had to take tours every night after the show as the audience were so impressed by the plant.

Gateway reprised the show again in 1998 and this was the last time that particular plant would be seen on stage as it had now become very tatty and was requiring too much TLC to keep it going than financial viability dictated.  Still, the old plant performed its magic and the show packed people in.

I played for ‘Little Shop’ once more at the Pomegranate.  This was for Spotlight Theatre in March 2006.  I was in the band with almost all of the soul band I play with and this proved particularly useful.  On the Saturday matinee we had trouble getting to the theatre as the M1 had had a series of bad accidents and everyone was trying to divert through the town so some of the cast were arriving late along with the audience.  All of the band were ready to start at 2.30, it was clear there were going to be long delays and we had our soul band singer performing in the show so we entertained the audience as they were arriving with an impromptu set of soul music.  This extended to around 30 minutes and I am glad to say we received a great round of applause from all.  The show then went well as we had ‘warmed up’ the audience beforehand.

October 2000 was the last date that Gateway performed as a group.  I had been away from the company for many years and decided, along with Russ Singleton, to ‘do’ the last show as we were there at the first show.  So from our years of playing young, hairy and very fit hippies we ended up playing two overweight and elderly extras in ‘Mack and Mabel’  I think this was memorable for the fact that I realised how much time and effort we must have shown in our early days that now could not be re-produced.

So these were my memories - well not quite.  Both Isabel and I have always enjoyed the dear friendship of Liz, Keith and Robert, so we still visit the theatre, especially at Panto time.  I did actually step in to run the sound desk during a couple of performances of one of the panto’s when the sound engineer was unavailable.   Lizzie and Izzie continue to be very close so we know what is happening with the theatre and will continue to be supporters of this venerable and precious resource that the people of Chesterfield need to cherish as much as I have over the years. 

(2009)

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