Amateur Theatre in the Royal Navy

Nadine Holdsworth and Sarah Penny

Drawing on archival and ethnographic research, Sarah Penny and Nadine Holdsworth’s annotated slide show offers a guided tour through some of the historical and contemporary theatrical events that have occurred on board ships and on naval bases. In particular it draws attention to the range of theatrical practices undertaken by the Royal Navy by offering illustrative examples of minstrel troupes, concert parties, crossing the line ceremonies, SODS operas, pantomimes and productions of Shakespeare.

In Volume II of The Navy and Army Illustrated there is an article entitled ‘FUN ON BOARD SHIP’. It reveals the forms of recreation on offer for service personnel towards the end of the 19th Century. Dated 30 October 1896, the article features three photographs including this one of HMS Rodney’s minstrel troupe. The photograph depicts members of the first-class battleship gathered around the troupe who have assembled on deck after a rehearsal of their ‘“Blackface” show.’ It is one of the earliest photographic examples of theatrical shipboard entertainment in the Royal Navy. The troupe’s characters include “Masa Johnson”, the Corner men, jester, clown, harlequin and some improvised elephants.

The Minstrel Troupe of HMS Rodney, 1896. Photo: The Navy and Army Illustrated

Pictured with a monkey on one shoulder, Royal Marine Rochford Leslie Stapleton (known as Les) poses in costume with a Royal Marine concert party troupe at a Hoxa gun battery. Les, like many marines drafted to Scapa Flow during the First World War, boosted fleet morale by producing concert party entertainment. Les joined the Royal Marines in 1908 and served on the China Station before the outbreak of the First World War. Between 1915 and 1916 he performed a “Chinese” magic act with the ‘Hoxa Concert Party’ and his diary entries reveal that he continued this theatrical practice throughout his service. Between 1939 and 1940, he gave magic shows for colleagues and local children in Paris when based at the British Embassy as a member of naval liaison staff.

Hoxa Concert Party, 1916.
Photo: Tim Stoneman

This photograph captures a group of naval personnel dressing backstage before a performance at Scapa Flow, a body of water in the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Extreme left, Leading Seaman C. Mitchell applies make-up under his eyes whilst Stoker A. Hills applies lipstick to Stoker F. Dickinson who stands in a dress in the foreground. The image demonstrates that the task of entertaining the Home Fleet during the Second World War was not only an activity conceived and produced by professional entertainers from organisations such as ENSA and CEMA but proactively undertaken and carefully produced by enthusiastic and talented individuals of the fleet. This image is part of the Imperial War Museum’s Admiralty Official Collection. Catalogue Number: A 13430. It can be accessed here:

Christmas Entertainment in the Home Fleet. Entertainment on board a Destroyer Depot Ship at Scapa Flow, 18 December 1942. Photo: Imperial War Museum.

King Neptune, Her Highness Amphitrite, and the royal court stand in front of a helicopter in preparation for their procession across the deck of HMS Centaur. Operating with the Mediterranean Fleet in January 1959, Centaur crossed the Equator and the ship’s company activated a ‘Crossing the Line’ ceremony. ‘Crossing the Line’ is a rite of passage that has evolved over centuries of practice and is still performed by service personnel at sea today. It plays an integral role in fostering a sense of community by initiating the novices or ‘pollywogs’ of the ship, people who have not crossed the Equator before, into ‘the Ancient Order of the Deep.’ After a procession led by King Neptune, members of the royal court coerce the ‘pollywogs’ to complete a series of uncomfortable tasks until they are finally submerged into tanks of water. The company collectively re-emerges as ‘trusty shellbacks’ and the newly initiated receive certificates to mark the occasion.

 ‘Crossing the Line’ Ceremony on HMS Centaur, 14 January, 1959. Photo: Jim Stroud.

Every Saturday evening at sea on HMS Ark Royal’s five-and-a-half-month deployment to North America, every mess deck turned on their television sets to watch the latest instalment of the ship’s own ‘Little Wilf Show’. Little Wilf, a ginger-haired Mr Parlanchin ventriloquist dummy, was the creation of R.E.M Pooley and the star of the show. ‘Hello you Winkers’ was Little Wilf’s catchphrase and became one of the most popular methods of greeting on the ship. The opening credits, as shown in this image, began with musicians playing ‘The Sailor’s Hornpipe’ with placards saying ‘I’m a winker’ and ‘so am I’ stuck to their foreheads. The show included live musical performances from members of the ship’s company and interviews filmed earlier in the week. Graham May, who witnessed the show on Ark Royal, revealed that Little Wilf’s bawdy matelot humour ‘broke down barriers between ranks’ and ensured the running of ‘a happy ship.’

The ‘Little Wilf Show’ on HMS Ark Royal, 1976. Photo: Graham May.

This photograph captures Tim Stoneman on stage playing the part of ‘Lurch’ in an Adams-Family-based sketch during a SODS Opera on HMS Ark Royal. Jackspeak: The Pusser’s Rum Guide to Royal Navy Slanguage identifies the word ‘SODS’ as an acronym for ‘Ship’s Operatic and Drama Society.’ SODS Opera has been used as an umbrella term for shipboard theatrical entertainment but it more accurately refers to informal, semi-organised events produced by the lower decks to satirise and ridicule the ship’s company. During this sketch, ‘Lurch’ is brought to life by two attendants who carry him on stage using a stretcher. Unknown to other performers, ‘Lurch’ repeatedly returns to the stage to push shaving foam pies in the faces of other participants during their acts.

SODS Opera sketch on HMS Ark Royal starring Tim Stoneman as ‘Lurch’, circa 1977.
Photo: Tim Stoneman.

When the Royal Shakespeare Company released a nationwide call for applications from amateur theatre-makers to pitch their Shakespeare or Shakespeare-inspired productions for consideration for its Open Stages initiative in 2011, the Royal Navy Theatre Association (RNTA) responded. The result was a production of Much Ado About Nothing set during the return journey of a Royal Marine Unit from Afghanistan directed by Lieutenant Commander Philippa Sargent and staged alongside the iconic HMS Victory in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Importantly, this production brought together a cast and production crew drawn from the three RNTA groups operating in and around Portsmouth: the Admirals’ Players, Collingwood RSC and Sultan Theatre Group.

Much Ado About Nothing staged alongside HMS Victory in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, 2012.
Photo: Pam Johns.

Every year Collingwood RSC, an amateur theatre group based on HMS Collingwood in Fareham, Hampshire, the Royal Navy’s largest training establishment, produce a pantomime for the local community. This photograph captures the inside of the large props and costume store based on HMS Collingwood. Here, the props team are preparing for the forthcoming production of Dick Whittington by producing props including the giant wedding cake, bag of jewels and baskets of flowers seen here. The pantomime, staged at the Millennium Hall on the naval base, sold out over six performances.

Preparing for Pantomime Season in the props store and workshop, HMS Collingwood 2014.
Photo: Nadine Holdsworth.

Here are four members of The Admirals’ Players rehearsing a song for their upcoming pantomime, Little Panto on the Prairie. The Admirals’ Players is an amateur theatre group comprised of a mixture of Naval and Civil Service personnel (current and retired) and their families. The group rehearse and perform in Fisher Hall at HMS Excellent on Whale Island in Portsmouth. On the walls is a photographic history of Whale Island, which captures other examples of creativity in the Navy including gymnastic displays and marine bands, as well as the infamous zoo that existed on Whale Island to house the numerous animals rescued by or presented to the Navy as mascots including a lioness and a polar bear.

A singing rehearsal in Fisher Hall, HMS Excellent 2014. Photo: Nadine Holdsworth.

The Royal Navy Theatre Association followed up its 2012 Open Stages production of Much Ado About Nothing, with a production of Henry V, also staged alongside the iconic HMS Victory in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. This production, directed by Chris Blatch-Gainey, set Henry V in 1805 when the crew of HMS Victory prepare for their forthcoming action at the Battle of Trafalgar by staging the play to encourage patriotic fervour and to boost morale. This photograph depicts one of the battle scenes and represents the French, who are demarcated by simple blue sashes, wielding their weapons against the English.

Battle scene in Collingwood RSC’s Henry V staged alongside HMS Victory in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, 2013. Photo: Pam Johns.


Sarah Penny is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick, UK, and was Assistant Administrator for the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR) 2014. She received an Erasmus Mundus scholarship for her Masters in International Performance Research at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, and is currently researching amateur performances in the Royal Navy within the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space. She has published in Performance Research and delivered numerous papers on her research. Her article, ‘Materialities of Amateur Theatre‘, co-authored with Cara Gray, appears in this special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review.

Nadine Holdsworth is Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Warwick. She has research interests in theatre and national identities, popular theatre practitioners and amateur creativity and cultural participation. Her recent publications include Theatre and National Identity: Reimagining Conceptions of Nation (2014) and Joan Littlewood’s Theatre (2011). She is a Co-Investigator on two AHRC funded projects Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space and For Love or Money? Amateur Professional Collaboration.

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