Nancy Hewins is just a footnote in theatrical history. Yet her all-women troupe once inspired a generation, while her approach to drama still seems radical today

Paul Barker
Saturday 03 June 1995 23:02

ST PETER'S, Willersey, is one of those Cotswold churches where the graves are set in what looks like a field. Sheep in a meadow on one side, cows on the other, the dead in this. I walked down in the hot sun until I found the simple headstone: "In loving memory of Margaret Nancy Hewins, 1902-1978", with a quotation from Cymbeline. I tucked my flowers into the metal holder and filled it from the church's red plastic watering- can. It was, I felt, the least I could do, by way of tribute.

It was also the end of a quest. The Osiris Players, which Nancy Hewins directed, have vanished, like stage ghosts, from the theatrical reference books, if they were ever in them. Yet they are an important slice of our social history. They appear to have been the first all-women professional theatre company in this country. Such groups were common in the Sixties and Seventies, but Osiris was founded in 1927, long before radical feminism was launched.

ONE DAY, more than 40 years ago, the younger children at an obscure Yorkshire grammar school were told they would see a production of Macbeth that afternoon. We went off in crocodile file to the local Co-op Hall. It had a small stage, mainly hired out for amateur performances of The Student Prince, though the hall itself was mostly used for dances. We sat around on the polished floor in a half-circle, and I watched the first production of Shakespeare - and the first professional theatrical performance apart from pantomime or variety - I had ever seen.

I was riveted by it - the swirling, bright costumes, the wonderful lighting, the high melodrama. It was all carried out by six or seven women, taking every part, playing the music, changing the scenes. This gave it an even more exotic power. I never forgot the performance, or the name of the company, Osiris.

But who were they? Where did they come from, and what had happened to them? From time to time, over the years, I asked people about them. The name meant nothing. I came to assume that they were a group who had come together for two or three years, as so many do, and then disbanded. Then, recently, on a wet London afternoon, I was working in the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden on something completely different. I looked up Osiris in the card index. There was a single entry: an unpublished typescript autobiography by Nancy Hewins. As I read through it, I began to realise what an astonishing and little- recognised achievement had lain buried.

I plunged into tracking down people who had known her, her family, old members of the company. It was even difficult to find photographs, though I discovered a (mis-captioned) photo-spread from Illustrated magazine, taken by the Blackpool-born cameraman, Reuben Saidman, in 1943, during Miss Hewins's finest hour. In wartime Britain, travelling by horse and covered dray because of the lack of petrol, she put on 1,534 performances of 33 plays (16 of them Shakespeare). As Jane Freeman, a former Osiris actress who now plays Ivy, the cafe owner, in Last of the Summer Wine, says, "It was in touch with the tradition of strolling players. It was theatre for the people. Nancy was a slightly minor Lilian Baylis." (At the Old Vic, Baylis created the precursor of the National Theatre, and at Sadler's Wells the precursor of English National Opera.)

Freeman says fondly that she bases the character of Ivy partly on her old boss. Another ex-Osiris member, Susan Date, now assistant principal at the Guildford School of Acting, compares Nancy to Margaret Rutherford. "She had a lovely simplicity and directness, and she knew how to get what she wanted, but she always looked a mess - seven layers of clothes and all of them showing."

But all that mattered was how it was on stage. The novelist Jane Gardam saw the Osiris Players on Teesside, where she was a child in wartime. She, too, had never been to a play before. A van drew up outside the school, she recalls, and "seven threadbare women got out". They reminded her of Mr Crummles's troupe in Nicholas Nickleby. They looked odd, even ridiculous. "One had a queer leg. Another seemed to have lost her hair. Another smoked secret-agent black cigarettes. They were all plain - well, ugly - and they wore, good God, trousers!" She went and sat in the front row. It was She Stoops to Conquer. She saw "the seven colourless women transformed into painted 18th-century beauties, into bumpkins and beaux, into thigh- slapping squires, into silken flirts". They rollicked, frolicked, wept and danced their way through the play. Twelve-year-old Jane and the rest of the young audience clapped, stamped and cheered. They begged for more. The adult Gardam recalls the performance as "a pattern of the earthly paradise". Like me, she never forgot these women.

NANCY HEWINS, their leader, was the daughter of the first director of the London School of Economics, WAS Hewins. He had, she wrote in the typescript I read, built it up from being "two chairs and a desk". She admired her father (about her mother she was mildly disparaging) and must have inherited something of his capacity for improvisation. Hewins was close to the radical politician Joseph Chamberlain in his campaign for imperial tariff reform and later became, briefly, the Tory MP for Hereford. Her father's connections with men such as Beaverbrook, Rothermere and Baldwin came in handy for Nancy. "When she started to tour in Scotland," her nephew, Richard, says, "and he gave her a contact, it was the Secretary of State." Her godmother was Beatrice Webb, the pioneer Fabian socialist and co-founder of the LSE; Nancy kept her silver teapot christening present all her life. Through Mrs Webb, she got introductions to local Co-op education departments, in the days when every Co-operative Society had a reading- room.

She went to St Hugh's College, Oxford, in the Twenties, and the theatre bug bit. "My love was lighting and settings" (hence the delicious storms I saw in her Macbeth). But Sybil Thorndike, a neighbour of the Hewins' at their house in Chester Square, Belgravia, told her that she couldn't produce properly if she didn't also learn to act. On coming down from Oxford in 1924, she started an amateur company called the Isis Players. It played Shakespeare in East End elementary schools, often still lit by gas, where the audiences were "lively, critical and tough". The London County Council education office let her use a redundant school in Wandsworth for rehearsals and for making floodlights out of old biscuit tins. (Her father was a co-opted member of the education committee.) The switch to professionalism, helped by pounds 40 from Lord Rothermere, brought the change of name. The Osiris Players' first production was The Merchant of Venice in December 1927.

They were always all-women, and "seven members were the most we could afford". Shakespeare was always the heart of their repertory. Scenes were cut and minor speeches transposed, to make the doubling work. It was almost certainly Nancy I saw as Lady Macbeth (it was one of her parts), in a ferocious red wig. Re-making-up at top speed, she could change from Lady M to Porter within a few lines.

Her principle was that no one could understand Shakespeare unless they enjoyed it: "The play had to come alive to the children." It became a life of driving through snow and ice to sooty industrial towns. Everybody did everything: acting, props, cooking. Nancy played the flute, to music specially composed for Osiris by a cousin. They moved on from performing only in schools to all kinds of local audiences, from unemployed miners in the Rhondda (Sweeney Todd) to munitions factories (Maria Marten). They celebrated the company's 21st birthday, at a women's institute in Kent, with Twelfth Night in the morning, Everyman at lunchtime, Macbeth in the afternoon, Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion after tea, topped off by Badger's Green, R C Sherriff's comedy about village cricket, in the evening. Not surprisingly, few of the players, outside the steady core of three or four, survived more than a couple of years with Osiris. "We were permanently exhausted," Susan Date remembers.

Why all-women? There were other small companies touring schools when they began, with both men and women players. But the men tended to go off faster into "proper" theatre. And Nancy maintained that male replacements "were difficult to get". The slaughter of the Somme, and Passchendaele, was not long past. Men were being killed until the last moment of the 1914-1918 war. Statisticians have since cast doubt on the myth of the "missing generation". But this is how it was perceived then; and if something is thought to be real, it is real in its consequences. The problem of the "surplus woman" was much debated, as Robert Graves and Alan Hodge noted in their social history of the inter-war years, The Long Weekend. And, they added: "Among the middle classes after the war, daughters were expected to take up business careers, or at least do something."

Nancy came, in any event, from a background of girls' schools and women's colleges - now mostly co-educational - based on the assertion that women could do anything men could. Even in the 1950s, Jane Freeman recalls, "a lot of us were convent girls, we were used to playing fellers in school plays". And once the company started travelling seriously, sleeping in barns, school floors, even a park cafe (digs were too expensive), a single- sex company perhaps risked fewer complications. "It was like a nunnery on wheels," Freeman says. If emotional complications did arise, Nancy's little remedies were sal-volatile or a teaspoon of brandy.

Was there more to it than that? In an all-women company in the Seventies or Eighties, lesbianism would probably have been part of a theatrical- political agenda. In Osiris's day, it wasn't. Nancy seems to have directed all her energy and her "motherly feelings" into the company. "I always loathed being tied in any way," she said, in explanation of not marrying, and couldn't have "run a career and a household". But two of her longer- standing colleagues were a definite pair. One of them was Kay Jones, ex- Somerville College, Old Vic trained, with a boyish haircut. She played parts such as Prince Hal or St Joan. Kay was with Osiris till the end, and "did much of the donkey work to feed Nancy's brilliance", according to Susan Date. But lesbianism was not an agenda. Publicly it would have been death. Privately no one seems to have been propositioned. The agenda was Shakespeare. "He became part of our lives," Jane Freeman says. "He was like a friend of ours."

At first, Nancy continued to work as a lighting director elsewhere. She lit a Holst ballet, a Monteverdi opera, a cabaret at Claridge's. But her speciality was pageants. In 1933 she lit an Empire Day pageant in Hyde Park, sponsored by Beaverbrook's Daily Express. The producer was Arthur Bryant, the popular historian, the music directed by Malcolm Sargent, and community singing led by the father of Michael Young, the sociologist. Then she lit another Bryant pageant at Greenwich Royal Naval College.

Many of Osiris's costumes came from Greenwich, mended and added to (often by Kay Jones) over the years. They were in the old Shakespearean tradition of bright, Renaissance glamour. They were hessian or canvas, painted in vivid reds and golds. Uncomfortable to wear, but they folded flat. Everything had to be tough. When Nancy played Claudius, she wore the Ghost's armour underneath her hessian, for quick changing.

When Osiris began, local reps still flourished. There were traditional bits of "business", so that if a new actor arrived, he knew, for example, just what Sir Toby Belch did at any given moment to get the laughs. The decline of the rep and the rise of the almighty director, seeking new interpretations, has ended this. Nancy wasn't keen on all the routines of old business, but anything new had to be justified by the text. And if she played in the round (as in that Co-op Hall, long ago), it was because it fitted the day. "We were not Elizabethan on principle," she wrote. "It just happened to be convenient."

Outside the war years, Osiris travelled in two Rolls-Royces, one cream and white, one sheer black. Nancy said they were the only cars that could take the strain of pulling caravans, while piled high with suitcases with players lying flat on them, learning their parts. But they were also good for publicity. I remember them turning in at the school gates. Children would come and stroke the cars - and the Belgian griffons she never travelled without. (One of them played Moon's dog in A Midsummer Night's Dream.)

Her out-of-London tours began in Wolverhampton, where her father had been at grammar school. She was proud of her Midlands origins. One great- grandfather was a Black Country ironmaster. She liked to think that the John Hewins who married Shakespeare's Aunt Agnes was part of the family. Just before the war, she moved from London to the Cotswolds, and toured from there. She always came back for the Chipping Campden festival, where Reuben Saidman caught up with her as Falstaff.

Osiris was, technically, a co-operative, with shareholders limited to current members of the company. (Two of the board were teachers at a girls' school in Yorkshire, which is no doubt why my nearby Macbeth happened when and where it did.) Players weren't paid much until Equity, after the war, insisted on a minimum wage. But they were fed and clothed. During the war, when funds were low, players took jobs in local Cotswolds shops, or made gas mask cases, pooled the money and ate lots of black puddings. In this co-operative, there was never any doubt who was the boss. "She could be incredibly difficult and dogmatic," Susan Date says. "But if Nancy said to do something, you did it."

"We really did belong to the Thirties," Jane Freeman says. "Think of Dorothy Sayers if you want to get the flavour of Nancy. The original girls were prosperous young women, taking education to the masses - doing their best for the people they saw as under-privileged. Osiris had nothing smart about it. It was kept going by loyalty, a sense of duty. We did make a difference, I think, to a lot of people's lives. But when the new secondary moderns and comprehensives started to open - all glass and light - we began to look a bit peculiar, a bit out of date."

Nancy was proud of operating without subsidy. Theatre should be "rooted in the lives of ordinary people", she wrote, not dependent on "the reluctant taxpayer's purse". She relied on the numbers who would pay to come. With schoolchildren, of course, the money usually came from school funds, but (apart from a basic guaranteed minimum) it was a fee per seat filled. "I dare say if the company had had a Russian name," she wrote rather tetchily in her autobiography, "it would have been regarded as a remarkable experiment." She had a point. She also suffered from doing her main touring work at a time when "the provinces" rated nowhere beside London. Acting on improvised stages to unconventional audiences made her even less "legit". Yet she was not only in the direct line of descent from strolling players, but also a forerunner of companies such as Cheek By Jowl, which are devoted to the idea of touring.

Osiris stopped travelling regularly in 1963, after 36 years. The final repertory was 55 plays. Nancy reckoned she had played 128 parts. Latterly, many of the tours had been in Ireland, which she loved for the unequalled immediacy of the response she got. A map of Osiris's travels shows the British Isles peppered with dots, like a bad outbreak of measles.

But Nancy never quite gave up. The next year, at the age of 62, she was putting on Macbeth with only four players, and only one minute for costume changes. She taught at the Birmingham Rep school for a while, and eventually made a modest living from hiring out Osiris costumes. She lived for many years in an old stone-built house at Willersey. The players used to sleep in various bits of it, and in the barn alongside where a local nurseryman once made up wreaths.

Wynne Griffiths lives in the house now. She joined Osiris in 1952, after a wartime spent in anti-aircraft work, followed by drama school at Bradford. "We chose well-built girls, what our Yorkshire friends called 'right lassies', of average height," Nancy said, perhaps with Wynne Griffiths in mind. She became an unofficial adoptive daughter. She was two years with Osiris (a photograph shows her as the Queen in Richard II), but came back to help with the costumes business. Nancy left her the house when she died, just before her 76th birthday.

The village isn't infested with tourists like neighbouring Broadway. There was a primary school fete on the green as I tried to find the house. A bouncy castle, and a sheep in a pen for you to guess the weight (20p a go, or six goes for pounds 1). The path to the house was hemmed in with shrubs. It was like the start of a fairy-tale. Miss Griffiths was in. Now in her late sixties, she showed me a sketch of Nancy in the small hallway, done just before she died. Margaret Rutherford to a T.

We sat in the low, shadowy front room. The mantelpiece was full of bright rosettes from dog shows: Miss Griffiths keeps beagles. "Osiris was extraordinary," she said. "Nancy made sure that nothing was going to stop it. A lot of companies would have just given up. Nancy was very unorthodox, not at all the theatrical dame. As my mother in Oldham would have said, 'There was no flum about her.' "

We looked through mementoes of the company. In a brochure, Stanley Baldwin lavished praise on "Nancy Hewins and her gallant band of sisters". (He also made sure that the Pilgrim Trust charity gave her a small grant when it was desperately needed.) A fading photograph showed Miss Griffiths on her first day with Osiris, packing up cases to put in the Rolls.

She had kept the garden as Nancy left it, she said. We walked up to the end to look at the beagles, including prize-winning Betsy. Behind the Osiris barn is a fir tree. "Nancy planted that," Miss Griffiths says. The house "will surely be haunted one of these days", Nancy wrote. It is.

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