In 1932, theatre in St Albans had reached its lowest point. The town’s professional repertory company had closed due to dwindling audiences. The proscenium arch at its home, the County Hall, was bricked up. The amateur Operatic and Dramatic societies, having no theatre to perform in, also disbanded.
But two young men were about to change matters. Arthur Swinson and Terry Newell were members of the Abbey’s Youth Fellowship, where they enjoyed presenting play readings and concerts. In 1934 eight others members of the Fellowship with similar interests decided to put their performance group on a slightly more formal footing, and the Company of Ten was born.
Their first production of A Murder Has Been Arranged by Emlyn Williams was staged in November 1934 at the (since demolished) Culver Hall on Culver Road, St Albans (right). Cyril Swinson, Arthur’s older brother, was drafted in to direct and rapidly became an important member of the group, helming the first eleven productions.
The Herts Advertiser, then as now a staunch supporter of the Company, gave the fledgling group an enthusiastic welcome. ‘For a first production,’ it reported, ‘the play was outstanding both in the quality and of acting and staging…it is easy to prophesy that the Company will forge ahead’.
It did. Though productions during the war years were mostly limited to rehearsed play readings, members drifted back to the town after the war. The Company was soon back to full strength.
In the early 1950s Cyril Swinson bought Abbey Mill House, next to the Fighting Cocks pub, and offered the group the opportunity to convert the barn in the back garden into a theatre (pictured above). The ninety-nine seat Abbey Mill Theatre was opened in October 1955. But after Cyril’s death in 1963 at the age of just 52, the land was developed for housing and the Company faced homelessness.
Thankfully, in 1965, St Albans City Council offered a lease on land next to their new leisure centre at Westminster Lodge. A huge fundraising drive began. At the launch, among the telegrams of support was one from the set of Coronation Street, where Terry Newell’s eldest son was learning to be a director. Mike did indeed become a director, making films such as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Four Weddings and a Funeral. He’s also our current patron.
Money for the building of a new theatre was raised from grants, charitable donations and any number of fundraising events – even selling bricks for threepence each.
The foundation stone of the first purpose-built theatre to be built in St Albans since Roman times was laid by Sir Michael Redgrave (right) in 1967. In April 1968 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother came to the opening performance of The Recruiting Officer. The Studio was added in 1980, initially to provide better space for rehearsals. But by the 1990s it had been developed for its own productions, particularly experimental drama.
The Company has often performed ‘out and about’. Not just in venues around St Albans, such the theatre at Verulamium, the Abbey, and the Gardens of the Rose, but also in festivals and tours as far afield as Michigan, USA.
Nowadays, the Company is stronger than ever. Redevelopment of its Abbey Theatre continues apace.
And with a couple of dedicated youth arms, a supportive local community and seemingly no end to the theatrical talent in its ranks, the next Act in the Company’s story looks like being every bit as exciting as the last.
This history is largely taken from Terence Newell’s Ten of the Best: A Life in the Company of Ten During its First Fifty Years (1985)