Life in the limelight

FOR Pat Taplin, the theatre and all things theatrical has been a life-long and absorbing passion.

FOR Pat Taplin, the theatre and all things theatrical has been a life-long and absorbing passion.

Today JAMES MARSTON speaks to a woman who has entertained the people of Suffolk for a remarkable six decades.

SITTING in her Woodbridge flat, Pat Taplin is sipping a cup of tea and looking at some old photos.

Surrounded by a lifetime of pictures, she describes the costumes, the songs, the cast, the routines, and above all the shows as if they were yesterday.

Anecdote follows anecdote, and it's that clear Pat adores musicals. Camelot, Oklahoma, Gigi, Calamity Jane, Crazy for you, Grand Hotel - there isn't a musical Pat hasn't seen, appeared in, or directed. Over the years, she's just about done them all.

Pat, 79, has been a member of most of the area's theatre groups, and she remains one of the leading lights of amateur theatre in the region.

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She said: “I would have been about six or seven when I started. This was back in the 30s. I can remember singing on my own at a church festival. I sang Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam.”

In the 1950s Pat moved with her mother to Felixstowe. She said: “I joined Felixstowe Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society, and there was no other society at that time. Musicals were performed at the Spa Pavilion, which hadn't long been reopened after the war and we also did plays at the Ranelagh Theatre which isn't there anymore.

“I did musicals but I wasn't really a singer. I often got the comedy part, we'd be sent on to do a comedy bit while the scenery was being moved behind us. The first musical I did was The Quaker Girl in 1956. I got the part of Madame Blum. It was the comedy lead and she ran a rather smart restaurant in Paris.

“Then FADOS decided to do Oklahoma and I got the part of Ado Annie, again the comedy lead. She's the girl who sings 'I'm just a girl who can't say no.'

“It was a great part. Oklahoma was very new back then. Musicals used to start with great big cast numbers, this starts with one actor jumping over a picket fence and singing 'Oh What A Beautiful Morning.' It was revolutionary and this was one of the premier amateur productions. The Spa Pavilion was packed out.”

Combining marriage, motherhood and a teaching career - Pat became deputy head at Causton Primary School - she always found time to indulge her passion. She said: “I went back to teaching when my children were growing up. We did a panto which I directed every year.”

But it is for directing that she has become best known.

She said: “The first musical I directed was Lock up your Daughters with the Felixstowe Musical Society, in 1971. I love directing the big shows. I went on to do 11 with Ips Op (Ipswich Operatic and Dramatic Society).”

Pat established her own theatre company in Ipswich, called Gallery Players in 1985. She said: “It started as a group of friends. The first thing we did was Cowardly Custard. It was such good fun. We didn't make much money but it was enough to carry on.”

More than 20 years later Pat is still at the helm of Gallery Players, deciding shows and casting plays and musicals. She said: “We were the first company in the area to do any of the Sondheim musicals with Company in 1987. I love Sondheim's work. Everybody is a character, its challenging to direct, words are extremely important to him and each show has its own style of music.”

Pat, who has been married to husband Dennis for 53 years, said, said directing has become increasingly difficult, as technical advances and innovations make their mark.

She said: “When I first directed, we didn't have microphones or sound amplification. Now getting the sound right takes up a huge amount of time, it's a major part of the show.

“Scene changes have to be smooth and slick and imperceptible in modern shows, which means you have to hire a moving set. It's definitely getting more complicated. In a way if you don't hire a set you have much more freedom. It's become a big responsibility.

Pat said: “I do get nervous but not about the actors - I know they'll pull it off. I get concerned about the things that can go wrong like the lighting and sound. It is my name on the programme.

“When things are going well you get a particular sensation inside you. It can be very moving and you have worked so hard to make it good. It's lovely when everyone is on a high.”

She added: “In some ways it is a regret I didn't go into performing professionally, but back then it was the 1940s and my mother and grandmother didn't allow it.

“There were the opportunities then as well. For youngsters today it is constant heartbreak and rejection.

Passionate about her subject, Pat is energetic and constantly busy. Often seeing shows, researching musicals, as well as rehearing she maintains a gruelling schedule.

She said: “I have always been busy ad on the go. I love it and I don't think I can stop. I did retire from directing the big shows with Ips Op, but I came back for Evita.”

So what's next on the list?

Pat said: “Next year I want to do the musical Spend Spend Spend. It is the story of Viv Nicholson who won the pools in the 1960s. When a reporter asked her what she planned to do with her new fortune, she replied, “I'm going to spend, spend, spend!” which is exactly what she did. It's about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and it's a true story.”

Determined to entertain, Pat sees no reason to stop doing what she loves.

She added: “It is almost addictive, there's always another show to do, you've always just seen or heard of something that interests you. I have to have a challenge and I like to be first.”

What's your passion? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to

5th century BC: Musical theatre dates back to the theatre of the ancient Greeks, who included music and dance in their stage comedies and tragedies.

12th and 13th centuries: Religious dramas, such as The Play of Herod and The Play of Daniel were set to church chants.

1700s: Two forms of musical theatre had becomepopular in Britain, France and Germany: ballad operas and comic operas.

1866: The first theatre piece that conforms to the modern idea of a musical, adding dance and original music to tell the story, is generally considered to be The Black Crook, which premiered in New York.

1900: Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, popular music was dominated by theatre writers.

1943: The Golden Age of the Broadway musical is generally considered to have begun with Oklahoma! In 1943 and to have ended with Hair in 1968.