Dons’ Plays – 100 years of a great tradition

The 1920s saw the foundation of one of Radley College’s longest-running and most fondly anticipated institutions: the Dons’ Plays. Many Radleians who were at the school from the 1940s into the 1960s can still recite part of a dialogue or perform one of the comic songs, usually with actions. The plays’ influence on education in the school is unmeasured: once each year a dramatic role reversal took place in which teachers became entertainers, letting their hair down singing, dancing and with a script full of bad puns and topical jokes. Nearly every member of the teaching staff appeared on stage with backstage support from the community and a very few select pupils.

The dons had taken part in school plays and entertainments from the 1850s, but the Dons’ Plays were different – they were performed exclusively by the staff as a gift for the boys. The first performance was in 1923: The Man in a Bowler Hat passed quietly, recorded only in its surviving programme, but it laid the foundation not just for the Dons’ Plays but for Radley College Amateur Dramatic Society as well. RCADS was officially launched as a society for both boys and dons in 1924.

On 31 October 1925, Common Room shared a double-bill evening’s entertainment with the school. From then until 1963 there was an annual Dons production, with two performances, one for the school and one for Old Boys, under the auspices of Kenneth ‘Oyster’ Boyd and Charles Wrinch. In the years before the Second World War, professionally written sketches were performed. By the 1940s these had been replaced by full-scale pantomimes, written by Alan Rawlinson, with original music composed by Ceddie Borgnis. There were occasional revivals of favourite revues and sketches, and the flavour of the whole can be gained from the titles, which reflected radio and television programmes of the day, such as 1940s ITDA (It’s that Don Again), Revudesdons and Dons will be Dons in the 1950s, while Dig Dem Dons was the offering in 1960. In the 1950s Theo Cocks, Peter Way and Anthony Caesar devised the majority of the entertainments, still in the same style.

The unbroken run came to an end in 1963, to be followed at intervals by new works by Peter Way, beginning with Peter Panto in 1969 and ending with The seven-percent solution in 1982, with music by Donald Paine. But an increasingly large school imposed too much pressure on staff to produce such elaborate entertainments from scratch. This, combined with the retirement of Peter Way, the last of the old guard, and the increasing professionalism of school drama, saw the end of both regular Dons’ Plays and RCADS.

However, the tradition of an entertainment performed solely by dons as a gift to pupils, was too entrenched in the ethos of the school for it to fade away completely. In the forty years since the last original production there have been numerous performances, usually of professional pieces involving far fewer of the teaching staff. The first revival was Alan Bennet’s Forty Years On in 1990, directed by Charles Hastings. For the first time, female roles were played by female teachers. The review gives a flavour of all the performances for 100 years:

‘individual bouquets must end with (for this writer) the pièce de resistance, the cameo scene in which two immensely distinguished Radley figures appeared onstage for the first (and last) time. Totally unrecognisable as Lady Dundown and with a falsetto voice of which only a former Precentor is capable, Donald Paine, maestro of the orchestra pit on so many memorable evenings in the Old Gym, was ferried to centre-stage in a decrepit wheelchair and dowager’s weeds by the ultimate in oleaginous and clapped-out butlers, Withers, disguised as Micky Jones, the first Bursar to face the footlights since that never-to-be-forgotten, explosive expert, Colonel Crozier, in the 1930s. Here was pure comedy, and played with perfect timing and restraint’. Peter Way, The Radleian 1990

The trend in plays based on school life continued in the 2000s with performances of Daisy Pulls It Off and Happiest Days of Their Lives whilst pantomime was revisited in 1995 with Peter Pan. Peter Pan brought as many dons as possible onto the stage. John and Katie Nye, heavily involved in Abingdon Operatic Society, masterminded a concert performance of The Yeomen of the Guard in 2000. Later productions have involved fewer staff, including performances solely by the Drama teachers.

The original idea of a revue, featuring actors and musicians in a series of sketches, was revisited in the most recent Dons’ Play: in 2018, John Beasley devised a tribute to Old Radleian, Peter Cook (himself heavily influenced by the Dons’ Plays of his own time) and in 2023 with a centenary performance. Latterly, performances have donated all profits from ticket sales to charities linked to the school.