How many dramatic societies can claim to owe their existence to the fact that the government turned a church hall into a restaurant? Well the Guild Players can. During world war two a series of what were called British Restaurants were set up in every district to provide cheap food, off the ration, for working people. The church hall at Ballards Lane was commandeered for that purpose and continued in operation until the end of 1946. The floor at one end of the hall was strengthened to carry the weight of the large industrial cookers and ovens and that part, the kitchen, was partitioned off from the rest of the hall by a fibreboard wall. In this wall a hole was cut to provide the hatch through which food would be served to the customers, who sat at tables in the main part of the hall.

When the hall was handed back to the church, and all the kitchen equipment removed, an enterprising group of members of the very active Wesley Guild decided to seize the opportunity and create their own theatre. They had already founded the Guild Players and, amidst great difficulties, produced a couple of plays on the tiny platform of the Essex Hall (then called the Primary School Hall). Now they could build something that would allow them to spread their dramatic wings. It was hard work but they did it all from within their own resources. Above the strengthened concrete floor of the kitchen they built a solid stage. Under it there was space for storage. The partition became the proscenium, the serving hatch being enlarged to stage size. Footlights and overhead lights were installed and a lighting gallery at side stage to control the lights was constructed. Material was bought and made into traverse curtains and imposing velvet front curtains bought and installed. The staff rest room behind the kitchen became the dressing room and finally enough chairs were acquired to seat an audience.

Then, in November 1947, the Guild Players proudly presented their first play in their new theatre: Quiet Weekend by Esther McCracken - a very popular play at that time. Since then they have never looked back. They are one of the longest surviving companies in Finchley and have presented everything from Shakespeare to pantomime, tragedy to farce, poetic drama to musicals, theatre in the round, promenade theatre and theatre in church. And the theatre they built with their own hands, although adapted and updated from time to time, remains one of the best in the district. Not only that, but every programme of every Guild Players production bears the proud legend: Part of the Finchley Methodist Church.

Laurie Heatherington
February 2006

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