Irene Jeffery

Years active in NCP

1963 – 1975

Memories of Nairobi City Players

It was thanks to my Mother that I joined Nairobi City Players in 1963 soon after I had returned from boarding school in England.  She felt it was a good way to get to know people as well as having fun.  How right she was.

I was introduced to Mac Spence who in turn introduced me to the backstage crew, which included Mary and Bryan’s eldest son Hugh, and was soon put to work sizing and painting flats. I well remember pottering around where the flats, etc., were made, stepping on a piece of wood which had a couple of nails sticking out.  One went straight through my shoe and into the arch of my foot.  I then had to get David Cox to pull the nail out and rushed home to bathe my foot in Dettol and bandage it.   The next day I returned suitably bandaged, limping slightly, but making doubly sure where I placed my feet in the future!

I then graduated to being Assistant Props Mistress and then Props Mistress for a number of shows.  One of the main tasks as Props Mistress was to persuade people to loan us a variety of props that we could use for our shows, in return for getting a mention in the programme.  We only had one major casualty and that was in Fiddler when a silver candelabra got damaged by a flying flat.  Fortunately for me the owner was generous enough to agree to the offer of having it repaired.

There was one other incident that I remember and that occurred during the run of “Conduct Unbecoming”.   The show involved a game of “pig sticking” where  some of the cast stuck the pig with rapiers – unfortunately one of the cast was accidently pierced with a sword and came rushing back to the props room bleeding profusely.  With the aid of one of the backstage crew we managed to stop the blood with a tourniquet and were able to send him on his way to hospital as soon as the ambulance arrived.  I seem to recall he was back on stage the next day – talk about “the show must go on!”

One of the first stage plays I saw at the National Theatre was “The Wizard of Oz” where Paddy Purchase played the Wiz.  I was absolutely riveted by his performance and Paddy and I became firm friends after that.

My first venture on stage was as a postulant nun in “The Sound of Music” – it was here I met Jane Zagoritis – she was one of the Von Trap children and I remember each night having to help her in the wings with a quick change.  We have remained friends ever since.

I played a number of small parts in various shows – “Hello Dolly” produced by Larry Oaks. “Oliver” produced by David Kelsey where I was the first flower seller on stage and had to sing the opening lines of “Who will buy my sweet red roses, two blooms for a penny”  without the accompaniment of the orchestra – scary!

But I think one of the most memorable events occurred in “Man of La Mancha” with Ray Charman playing the lead role of Don Quixote.  Just at the death scene there was a kerfuffle in the front row of the audience and the lights in the auditorium were raised and people rushed to the aid of a gentleman who was, it appeared, having some sort of fit.  The whole production was put on hold for some time and then it was decided that we needed to continue.  We all held our breath as Ray got back into his role and continued with the play.  How he did it I will never know – the atmosphere was electric and by the end of the show the clapping was tremulous.

The backstage crew on the last night were well known for attempting to make some of the onstage actors corpse, and many tricks were played on them.  On one occasion there was a water fountain on stage and the most copious amounts of bubbles flowed out onto the stage amidst giggles and consternation from members of the staff and crew.

Thanks to Peter Pearce and Bryan Epsom I also had the chance to play an extra in The Wilby Conspiracy, directed by Ralph Nelson and starring Michael Caine, Sidney Poitier, Prunella Gee and Saeed Jaffrey.  Peter played a South African Highway Policeman, Bryan played a Judge and Mike Andrews also played a policeman.  It was filmed in Nairobi in 1974 and most of the action took place around Nairobi Market.  I managed to take a few days leave from work and we got paid a small amount of money for the privilege.  The film was released in August 1975 by which time I was working in London for the BBC and a friend told me she had tickets to see the premiere and would I like to go.  I fortunately hadn’t been cast on to the cutting room floor but one blink and you would have missed me.  It was fun and I there and then decided that I preferred the atmosphere of the theatre rather than working in film.

During my time with City Players, Mac Spence decided to set up a group for those involved backstage and Stage Operators and Technical Specialists (SOTS for short) was born.  We had very special SOTS t-shirts made and we also had a war cry “When the going gets tough the tough get going”.  The logo was of a Scottish kilted man bearing a shield and holding a large hammer in his right hand.  If my memory serves me right he was referred to as “Wee McGregor” – with the words “Another Quality Product”

The final involvement I had with City Players was being part of the Minstrel group – singing and dancing and doing a variety of sketches at various Clubs in and around Nairobi, even travelling to Kisumu to perform at the Kisumu Club.  So much fun and lots of laughs.

There are a couple of sketches that really stand out in my mind and they are “Pale Hands I Hate” starring Benny Goodman as “Big Chief Rumble Belly” and Gill Hines as one of his squaws and another Benny Goodman sketch when he sang “Mammy” and his arms extended and extended. Superb!

So many memories – the last night parties on stage, the parties that were held at people’s homes – the visits to the Norfolk Hotel terrace for a quick pick me up.  Baby sitting for Gail and Glen Goodman.  Looking after Mary Epsom’s delightful Mum, Mrs. Pollock, and finding out what it had been like growing up in Gibraltar.  The wonderful Nat Kofsky who managed the National Theatre.  For these and many others a very big thank you to all concerned.

On leaving Kenya I settled in London and searched to find something similar to City Players but all failed to meet my expectations.  I moved up to Leicester and bought a converted stables in Evington Village and last year got involved in helping with costumes and props for C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at St. Denys Church as part of their  800th anniversary celebration.  Had to really think out of the box for some of the props but it was fun, even though I wasn’t around for the final show due to visiting Vegas, Ecuador and in particular sailing round the Galapagos Islands which was totally mind blowing.