I was involved in the Festival of Castles in 1983 – the Wales-wide event that inspired the Monmouth Festival – and stayed involved in one way or another for the next 10 years. Initially, it was as part of the entertainment, mostly as a member of Centre Players (now Off Centre Theatre) when we staged plays in the Square, shouting our lines against the passing traffic. In 1986, I became Chairman (the first Chair was John Hamilton, who owned what is now the Riverside Hotel) and carried on in that post for another seven years, with a small but incredibly hard-working committee who were truly responsible for ensuring a strong foundation to the annual events that followed.
Daily stage-building and chairs in the square
Initially, the 15” high stage had to be constructed from scratch every evening so we would congregate straight from work to fulfil the task in about an hour and a half. Although the nightly show didn’t go up until 7.30pm it became quite the thing for audiences to turn up at 6.45pm just for the fun of watching the build-up! Two years into its life, the Festival benefited from the very generous gift of 100+ wooden chairs, courtesy of John Wills, who then owned and ran The Punch House. When not in use, they lived in the ‘dungeons’ beneath the Shire Hall and had to be dusted down and carried up for the commencement of the Festival and then, during its run, stacked and stored every night at the bottom of the Shire Hall staircase. They proved invaluable to an audience of mixed ages and variable stamina.
For the first two or three years, the programme ran over 8 nights – Saturday to Saturday – but it gradually grew until, in its 10th year it covered a massive 15 nights. Coincidentally, 1993 was the first time we had complete closure of the Square to through traffic. Prior to that, we operated a single lane regime controlled by traffic lights, which the committee had to assemble and remove each evening.
Local talent – and the birth of The Cliveden Set and The Mighty Pledge
Half the acts comprised local talent and the Festival gave birth to The Cliveden Set and The Mighty Pledge. Monmouth School of Dance were regular favourites, as was the Music Hall group Moss Empire. Monmouth Band played bravely against all the elements and Centre Players continued to perform memorable works such as Murder in The Red Barn and Bad Day at Blackfrog Creek. As the Festival’s popularity increased we became more ambitious and expanded the programme by booking professional theatre companies, bands, musicians and storytellers. The eclectic mix covered Commedia del Arte, Bavarian Oompah (always a big hit), Barbershop Harmony, classical piano recitals, jazz, Punch & Judy and much, much more. The design of our staging became more sophisticated and permission was finally granted for it to remain in place for the entire fortnight. Then, as now, visitors arranged their holidays to coincide with the Festival.
Candlight procession and a giant birthday cake
It was always an ambition to operate a fringe festival, but the idea was slow in catching on. Nonetheless, there were exciting and ambitious additions to the standard evening fare, such as the building of a giant birthday cake to celebrate the 600th birthday of Henry V. Since Bordertown was being performed in St Mary’s Church we were able to coerce the cast into participating in a magical candlelit procession which made its way through Monnow Street to Monmouth Castle, where more than 450 candles, in jam jars, were positioned around the cake – manufactured from Tri-Wall. Other events over the first ten years included an archery demonstration contest and a display by the Ermin Street Roman Guard, on Vauxhall.
Monmouth Festival became a showcase of the town’s diverse talent and a superb example of what community collaboration can achieve: it was a privilege to be part of it.
David Evans June 2012
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