Feature: Making drama out of a crisis

 Sue Ospreay, started this theatre group 33 years ago

Sue Ospreay, started this theatre group 33 years ago - Credit: Archant

When Sue Ospreay decided to put on a one-off variety show to help to save Oldchurch Hospital in 1980, she definitely didn’t see it as a long-term plan.

“Not on your life,” said Sue more than 30 years later. “If someone had told me that I would still be doing this I would have told them that they were having a laugh.”

Sue might not have known it at the time, but it was going to be the beginning of Lightnin’ Drama Group.

Now, 33 years on, the community theatre group based in Rainham is still going strong and is showing no signs of slowing down.

The group started life in 1980 during a campaign to save the cancer unit at Oldchurch Hospital.

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Sue explains: “A lady by the name of Brenda King was campaigning for all she was worth to keep the cancer unit open.

“She had terminal cancer and the powers that be had decided that cancer sufferers, on top of feeling sick, could then endure a long journey to Barts Hospital in London for treatment.”

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Sue came up with the idea of putting on a variety show to get young children involved in the campaign.

She said: “The problem was that Brenda was a barmaid and most of the campaigning she did was in bars and pubs and it wasn’t very child- friendly.

“I thought the variety show was a good idea to get the kids involved – most importantly Brenda had a seven-year-old son who really wanted to help his mum.”

The show was a massive success and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sue said: “Soon after the final curtain, Brenda looked up at me and said ‘this is what you were meant to do’.”

The theatre group, which has members ranging from four to 70, has clocked up thousands of shows over the years and it has become so popular that 10 years ago Sue set up Thunder drama group for younger members.

While the members might have changed, something that hasn’t is the group’s dedication to raising money for charity.

“I think it is important to give. I know that charity begins in the home but every child nowadays has a computer or a laptop and it is important that they think about those who are not as fortunate as themselves.

“At the end of our shows, we always go around with a bucket and ask people to give what they can. The money has gone to a number of charities including Saint Francis Hospice and the Bobby Moore Cancer Trust.”

Sue has lost count of the number of shows she has written over the years but she says her favourite is 2011’s On A Wing And A Prayer.

The musical is based on the lives of pilots at Hornchurch Airfield during the Second World War.

She said: “When the Ingrebourne Valley project asked me to write a drama about Hornchurch Airfield, the first thing I thought was that it was going to be boring but once I started researching it turned out to be the best thing that I have ever written.

“One of the best compliments I have ever had is from an old lady who told me that she thought we had brought the boys back home.

“It sounds so corny but when we were performing there was a part of us that felt the pilots were actually there supporting us.”

Such was the success of the show that Sue decided to do a performance as part of the group’s 30th anniversary celebrations at the Savoy in London.

She said: “That has definitely got to be a highlight.

“The last number was like the last night of the Proms with everyone up waving their flags.

“Even now I still get people asking us to perform it again.”

Apart from the shows, Sue believes that the group serves a much wider role in the community.

She said: “We are stopping the kids from hanging around on the streets and most importantly we are sharing a passion with them.”

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