Players celebrating 60 years on stage at Sheffield's Lantern Theatre

Kevin Jackson and Viv Mager on stage at the Lantern Theatre. Picture: Dean Atkins

The Lantern Theatre owes its roots to prim Victorian morality - and the whim of a wealthy Sheffield businessman.

William Webster, a cutlery manufacturer, had daughters with theatrical ambitions, but travelling to London to seek fame wasn't considered the done thing for respectable ladies in 1893.

The Lantern Theatre in Nether Edge.

Instead he built the tiny 84-seat venue, topped by a cheerful illuminated dome on the roof, next to his mansion in Nether Edge as a plaything for his children to put on private productions for family and friends.

Later the place fell into the hands of a man called Charles Richardson, and was used as a dance school in the mid-1920s, but as the Second World War began the building lapsed into dereliction, locked up by police who were worried about its safety.

Then Dilys Guite entered the saga. An actress and drama teacher, she stumbled across the abandoned theatre in the 1950s while walking along Kenwood Park Road with her children, and as the decade wore on she decided to come to its rescue.

Dilys approached Charles to make a proposition. In 1957 he agreed to lease the Lantern, originally known as the Chalet Theatre, at a nominal rent of £1 a week, and her new group - the Dilys Guite Players - put their renovation plan into action.

Viv Mager at the Lantern Theatre. Picture: Dean Atkins

"When it eventually opened Mr Richardson was so impressed by what they'd done with it he donated it to them in memory of his late wife," says Kevin Jackson, today's chairman of the players, who are gearing up for a big celebration of their 60th anniversary. Standing in the foyer near the bar, Kevin points out a photograph showing Dilys and her friends peering curiously at the outside of the theatre.

"We know that was the day they walked in at six o'clock in the evening. There was tons of rubble on the floor. I think they had about £30 in their budget at that point, so they had to get sponsorship and help."

It took months before the Lantern was ready for the players' first show, Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, which the group is staging again this month.

There are about 160 members on the present DGP list, with about 60 being 'active' at any one time as people juggle family, work and education commitments with the call of the stage.

Viv Mager and Kevin Jackson leaf through the Dilys Guite Players' archive books. Picture: Dean Atkins

Two sets of volunteers are maintained - those who only want to help with front of house duties on show nights, and full members who contribute to the theatre's creative output through acting, directing, wardrobe or stage management.

This year a DGP Youth section launched, concentrating on Shakespeare, with members' ages ranging from 12 to 16.

"It kind of links with why Charles donated the theatre in the first place - to educate adults and young people about the arts," says Kevin, who joined in 2010 having never acted in his life.

"The youth group love it," confirms secretary Viv Mager.

"Even if I'm just in the bar, and they're in, you can hear the squeals and shouts of 'It's a proper theatre!'"

It's hard not to mirror the children's reaction when stepping into the auditorium, as the Lantern really is a proper, working theatre in miniature, with a plush red velvet interior and a painted proscenium arch capped by a centrepiece bearing the letters 'DGP' in an ornate hand.

There aren't many comparable venues, in Sheffield or elsewhere. The Merlin Theatre, also in Nether Edge, accommodates audiences twice as large as the Lantern's, while the Montgomery in the city centre has more than 400 seats.

"For a theatre of this size, it's unusual - and it's an original building. We're the oldest surviving theatre in Sheffield," says Kevin.

The players, a registered charity, feel fortunate to have their own space to put on plays, he adds.

"It's brilliant, because it gives us the chance to do what we want. We can do a lot with new writing - it gives us a luxury to try things out. The members love that, we have a lot who write and it's a chance to get their skills and creativity on stage. And when we're putting a season together we can be more flexible. We don't necessarily have to do all classics."

Members sympathise with other Sheffield drama groups that face an uncertain future because of proposals to turn the Central Library - where the Library Theatre is based - into a five-star hotel.

Kevin says he is 'not adverse' to the idea of sharing the Lantern. "There's no reason why there couldn't be a shared performance space. It's always been on the back burner."

It costs around £20,000 to keep the Lantern running every year, and around 10 years ago the Grade II-listed building began to be hired out to different groups and companies.

The occasional live music gig has taken place there, too, over the years. "It's usually acoustic-based," says Kevin. "We're in a residential area so we don't want anything too loud. Sound travels up through the lantern."

Keeping the community on side is important. Residents watch plays, and volunteer, and the group takes part in the Nether Edge Festival.

"The neighbours are lovely, they understand the theatre's been here for such a long time," Kevin says.

Audiences are varied and there are 'a lot of walk-ins'.

"People are looking for stuff to do locally. It's not in the city centre but the bar prices are cheaper than in town."

The players are getting ready to welcome a star Dilys Guite alumnus back into the fold. Sheffield-born comedy actor and musician Graham Fellows - best-known for his spoof character John Shuttleworth - is becoming a patron and will appear at the Lantern over two nights in February.

"We want people to remember we're here, and the fact it's such a great historic place."

The Dilys Guite Players' 60th anniversary production, The Merry Wives of Windsor, runs from November 15 to 25 at the Lantern Theatre. Tickets £11, visit www.lanterntheatre.org.uk or call 0114 255 1776 to book.

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