The History of Orbit

For over quarter of a century ORBIT THEATRE has made an indelible mark on the cultural life of the Capital of Wales. Future historians will have to consider what was the appeal of and why it was more than just another amateur theatrical company.

Every new theatre group sets itself up with ambitious programmes but many fall by the way side due to lack of talent, enthusiasm and knowledge and enterprise. Luckily all this came together in The Royal Hotel in 1968 when a dedicated group of enthusiasts advertised a meeting in The South Wales Echo about the formation of a new society. About 150 people attended.

Some companies fold within a few years having originated with an excess of overactive ego. But ORBIT had several pluses. It had premises (in a very rundown condition), a benefactor - the late Bob Ernest who would look after the premises, store scenery and build stage sets, Frank Wooles - a producer of extensive experience, Ivan Sadka - a musician's musician, and a dedicated team of professional people who, had they not been dragged into secure occupations, might have chanced their luck in theatre.

With outrageous confidence, ORBIT mounted the newly available musical "Oliver" in the New Theatre, and its public reaction was truly dazzling. Maybe the Echo didn't say - a new star in the firmament - but it certainly felt like it. The word was around that ORBIT THEATRE was the best thing since sliced bread! Cardiff audiences had not seen its like. "OLIVER" was a very well known show but new to Cardiff. The production values were very high, the orchestra sound was a highlight of the show, and for entertainment value it rivalled the West End! ORBIT then had a problem about where to present its shows. An experience at the Prince of Wales Theatre resulted in a glowing success for the company with "Tom Jones" but the surroundings for the performers and audience were shabby. This fixed future venues to the New Theatre, Sherman Theatre and occasionally the Reardon Smith.

A clear policy had emerged: to present the latest West End successes to local audiences.

What a halcyon time this was. A glance through the list of shows is an inventory ofthe greatest musicals of the 60's and 70's with an occasional hark back to local boy makes good, Ivor Novello successes. All the musicals up to 1975 were Welsh premieres. in following years, "PICKWICK", "ONCE UPON A MATTRESS", "IRENE", "MACK AND MABEL", "GREASE", "HANS ANDERSON" AND "ANNIE" were also new to Cardiff. "GERSHWIN"(1976) was an original show using Gershwin music, written by an Orbit member. The West End penchant for celebrating composers - such as "COLE" - shows that this pioneering Orbit idea is now common place.

From the opening of the Sherman Theatre, Orbit enjoyed a close relationship with its artistic director, the late Geoffrey Axworthy which lasted until his untimely death in 1992. Geoffrey's guidance ensured a high profile for the company with shows like the magical spectacular "ONCE UPON A MATTRESS", "MACK AND MABEL", still unseen in London and his final production with the stunning "A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC". In the recent past, some shows have been repeated and others are not new - this points to the scarcity of new releases. Also many older show are being recycled.

Over the years every company has performers with a loyal following. Orbit has produced its share. A list of actors and actresses who have displayed the qualities of stardom would list over 50 names. Perhaps two outstanding performers who personify them are Henry Jacobs and Hazel Hughes who at their peak had no rivals.

It's an old adage that actors should never work with animals or children. Animals don't remember their lines or moves but they do tend to mesmerize audiences. Bill Sykes' dog in "OLIVER" is remembered more than the boy who played Oliver Twist! On the other hand , children are cute. They give entertaining performances and do wonders

for publicity. Twice Orbit has hit the Cardiff Daily Echo's front page; once when a ten year old girl played the deaf-blind Helen Keller in the play "THE MIRACLE WORKER" , and secondly the stretched photograph of an ernomous number of young hopefuls queueing around the NEW THEATRE for the title role in "ANNIE". What about the plays? At best Orbit's reputation has been patchy. Sometimes it produced two plays a year, sometimes only one. The productions have always been interesting, occasionally quite brilliant. "ONCE A CATHOLIC" and "ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST" were Welsh premieres. Unfortunately, plays do not attract large audiences and cannot be judged by commercial standards. The outstanding "DEATH OF A SALESMAN" and "VIEW FROM A BRIDGE" were stunningly acted and cannot be compared with light comedies such as "WHO GOES BARE" and "WISHING WELL" which were no less worthy.

A child's view of theatre is revealing. Success for the company spawned a junior section which under Shirley Mould became the children's theatre group to join and for many years there was a waiting list. The shows they presented were colourful and enthusiastic and the junior section fulfilled the need to perform for many young children. In later years Orbit has used its wide range of talents to try new ventures such as touring with productions, "A GRAND NIGHT FOR SINGING", "THE WORLD GOES AROUND" and "THE MAGIC OF BROADWAY" were all well received. A new range of young talent was attracted when Orbit staged "FAME" twice in the same year such was its appeal!

Many of the original company members returned to play leading roles in Sondheim's "FOLLIES". The end of the century saw Orbit reprise the popular "OLIVER" which had been its first ever production - the show even included some cast members who had had leading roles back in 1968, including the original 'Nancy', Hazel Hughes, who returned to play the part of 'Mrs Bedwin'. The new millennium has seen the reprise of favourites such as "OLIVER", "THE SOUND OF MUSIC", and "THE WIZARD OF OZ" as well as Orbit premieres of "THE BEST OF TIMES" and "42nd STREET" , and a studio production of "GODSPELL", all enjoying the critcal and commercial success associated with an Orbit production.

The year 2002 saw the stylish saga "SHOW BOAT" at the New Theatre, and an autumn Orbit premiere of "WEST SIDE STORY", along with a sell-out limited run at the Orbit Studio Theatre of "JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR" ( which was revived in 2003 at the New Theatre by special permission of The Really Useful Company ).The year also saw a full scale production of "ANNIE", and the more experimental "LORD OF THE FLIES" at the Orbit Studio Theatre which also featured "BUGSY MALONE" in 2004. The New Theatre productions since then have been the sell-out favourite "PETER PAN" -acclaimed by critics and audiences alike- and "WEST SIDE STORY", followed by "THE WIZARD OF OZ" and "GODSPELL" in 2005. In 2006 the Welsh premiere of "THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK" - by special permission of Cameron Mackintosh - was said to "knock spots off many a touring professional show" , with a special mention for "truly stunning" set design.

Between 2006 and 2009 Orbit continued to present large scale musicals at the New Theatre, trying to balance the need to present commercially successful productions against those which are challenging but unlikely to cover their costs. These included repeat productions of CAROUSEL, OLIVER, ME AND MY GIRL, RETURN TO THE FORBIDDEN PLANET, and FAME.

In 2008 Orbit was allowed to present the first production in Wales of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, and because of its much-hyped interest from its film and television versions, it brought a completely new audience to the theatre, selling out every production, including extra matinees. This gave some much needed relief to the company’s balance sheet.

For most of the last decade Orbit’s home was in the church hall of the United Reform Church in Pen-y-Wain Road, where thanks to the support and help of the church administrators, it had been able to create a studio theatre as well as rehearsal facilities. Sadly the building was in need of major repairs and refurbishment and had to be sold. Since 2009 Orbit has been without a permanent home, and currently rehearses in a school hall. This did not prevent the company deciding to mark its 40th anniversary with its biggest and technically challenging production, Mel Brookes’ THE PRODUCERS.

All who saw it agreed that it did indeed show Orbit Theatre at the top of its game, and gave everyone involved with it a great experience as well as a celebration of what can be achieved.

Not everyone wants to see musicals about Hitler of course, and the company knew that subsequent productions would need to balance the books. 2010 therefore saw a return to the WIZARD OF OZ, whose box-office success was helped by the concurrent “Search for Dorothy” TV show. This was followed by THE FULL MONTY which has its own “unique” audience rarely seen in theatres, who brought the year to a rousing and successful end.

As 2011 dawns, the company faces increasing challenges to survive. When Orbit first performed at the New Theatre, it was the only company presenting musical theatre. Today the technical advances in stage presentation, and the opening of the Wales Millennium Centre enables fully professional companies to mount regular touring productions of West End musicals. Orbit has now to compete with these shows for its audiences, as well as the “stay-at-home” mentality of the computer age.

It is however the only outlet in the Welsh capital for those who wish to be involved with musical theatre in a fully professional setting, where everyone has a chance to pursue their theatrical dreams. Orbit Theatre hopes to continue to offer this opportunity to all who join it, and to delight its audiences with the quality of its productions.