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Blood, sweat and greasepaint: Tayport Musical Society celebrates 75 years with Christmas show Elf!

Octogenarian Ron Caird met the love of his life in the wings while homeschooled Skye has made friends for life. The Tayport Musical Society has changed lives for 75 years.
Rebecca Baird
Dundee University graduate Matthew Bain plays Buddy in Tayport Musical Society's Elf! The Musical. Image: TADAMS.
Dundee University graduate Matthew Bain plays Buddy in Tayport Musical Society's Elf! The Musical. Image: TADAMS.

When Jackie Rennie moved to Tayport from Glasgow in 1990, she was a stranger in a strange town.

Determined to find friends in her new home, Jackie asked a local joiner: “What’s the best way to get to know people here.”

His reply?

“Join the local musical society.”

So Jackie dutifully made her way along to Tayport Amateur Musical Society (known as ‘TAMS’) to ask if she could join.

And she was told ‘no’.

“They were too far into rehearsals, so I couldn’t join,” recalls Jackie.

“So I said: ‘Well, could I come along and make the tea?’ So I would turn up every Tuesday and Thursday night, and make everyone’s tea.

Jackie Rennie joined in 1991 after acting as a ‘tea lady’ for a season. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

“My first show was next next Christmas, 1991 – Mother Goose. I was in the ensemble.

“I had never done it before, and all I wanted to do was be on the stage, and sing, and twirl my skirt!”

Now 33 years later, that desire hasn’t changed much. But Jackie has made her way from ‘tea lady’ to honourary chairperson of of the society, making her the longest-serving active member as the group gears up to celebrate its 75th year in 2024.

Or rather, its 75th one in a row.

Tayport shows ‘held back Dundee trains’

‘Resurrected’ in 1949 by church organist William Wedderspoon after seemingly dropping off the radar for about 30 years, it’s thought that the original society was founded as far back as the 1870s.

It was with funds stored in the Clydesdale Bank from this Victorian iteration of the society that William, with the help of his friend, vocalist and thespian Harry Clark, restarted TAMS.

And the colourful heart of the Tayport community has been beating for three-quarters of a century since, putting on shows in the town’s Gregory Hall and the Blyth Hall in Newport – with the sets entirely dismantled and rebuilt in the second venue overnight!

The shows would attract audiences from all over Tayside, even stopping trains in their tracks.

The society has grown since its early days. Image: TADAMS.

“They held back the train to Dundee when the shows in Tayport were running late,” recalls former society president Ron Caird. “That’s pretty good for British rail services!”

In fact, from 1971-1998, its productions were so popular that they made their way across the Tay to Dundee’s Whitehall Theatre.

“I’m the guilty party there,” chuckles Ron, who first joined  TAMS for their 1956 production of The Desert Song.

Can you spot any relatives in this photo from the archives of Tayport Musical Society?

“I was president of Tayport and also of Thomson-Leng Musical Society,” he explains.

“At that time, there was a bit of resistance about going to Whitehall. But the manager at that time came to see one of our shows and was so taken by it that he asked us to go across to Dundee.”

Lighting guru Hamish got started in signals

Hamish Tough, another former TAMS member, has fond memories of doing the lighting in the Whitehall Theatre during his 30-year stint.

“I suppose I got started when I was in the National Service – I was in signals, so that got the electrical side going. And I just took to it,” smiles Hamish, whose father was a Tayport musical director, while his mother was on stage from the society’s very beginnings.

Tayport Musical Society performed Carousel in 1994. Image: TADAMS.

“My mum was Queen Elizabeth in the first show, and she played the violin for many years,” he recalls.

“The orchestra was totally amateur for many years. My father would recruit students from St Andrews university to play the music, they were pretty professional.

“On that basis, it was quite different to what it is now. No microphones!”

Indeed retired journalist Ron, who is in his 80s now, thinks the secret to the society’s success rests in one word – family.

‘I met my wife at Tayport Musical Society’

“That was – and still is – the great strength of the society – families are involved,” he says. “I remember back in Tayport, the local postie played the cello and his wife was on the violin!”

And Ron himself met his beloved late wife Vinorah – sister of founding member Harry Clark – in the wings of a TAMS production.

The late Vinorah Caird met husband Ron at Tayport Musical Society. Image: DC Thomson.

“I met my wife at Tayport Musical Society, when she was one of the makeup team. She used to put on my greasepaint, and I would just stare and think: ‘wow’!” recalls Ron with a smile.

“She recently died, but we were married for 64 years, so that’s the strength of the musical society!

“It’s a wonderful thing for a community, and it gives strength to a community. And we’ve got so many youngsters involved now – that’s the future of the society!”

Social sanctuary for home-schooled Skye

One such youngster is 10-year-old Skye Stirling, who has found a love for the spotlight in her first year at TAMS – now called TADAMS (Tayport Amateur Dramatic and Musical Society).

“I really like coming to society because I’m home schooled, so I’ve got another activity do to out of school,” explains Skye, who plays Tiara the elf in the upcoming production of Elf! The Musical, directed by Stuart Whyte and Shona Morgan.

Skye Stirling is one of Tayport Musical Society’s youngest members. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

“I’ve not got a solo, but I do like the chorus as well. I’m really enjoying it.

“And I’ve made lots and lots of friends. I think I’ve made more friends here than I had in school, so I’m glad of that.”

With 40 junior members and 32 performing adult members, the sizeable numbers help tackle one of Tayport’s biggest obstacles – budgets.

With three casts on rotation, their friends and families help to pack out the Blyth Hall year-on-year, along with the rest of the loyal audience members.

But since financial constraints stopped the society from performing in the Whitehall Theatre, the ticket sales no longer cover production costs.

The many children of TADAMS in Oliver! 2022. Skye Stirling can be spotted second from the right in the front row. Image: TADAMS.
Rehearsals take place every Tuesday and Thursday night at Blyth Hall. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

“Because we’re in a small venue, your seating capacity limits the amount of revenue you can get from tickets, so there’s only a certain amount you can do there to cover show costs,” explains current chairperson Mandy Nicoll.

“We do quiz nights, coffee mornings, pro-am bowling events – just bits here and there to gather extra funds.”

The show must go on – in spite of split seams

But in spite of its challenges, the society has adapted to a changing world, including moving permanently to Blyth Hall for rehearsals when Gregory Hall was ‘pinched by a playgroup’.

Mandy Nicoll chairs the society as it enters its 75th year. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

There are, I’m assured, no hard feelings.

Perhaps such resilience is down to the ‘show must go on’ spirit of theatre, which has certainly seen TADAMS members through their share of on-stage mishaps.

Jackie reminisces on the society’s premiere production of Fiddler On The Roof, when one actress got in a bit of a twist.

The Wizard of Oz in 2013 was the first time TADAMS used projections on stage. Image: TADAMS.

“There was a graveyard scene, and we had one of the girls strung on a wire,” she explains.

“And when she was hauled up, she started to spin – fast! We just had to put our hands up and keep hitting her on the back to slow her down!”

Likewise, Ron recalls one incident where the infamous Harry Clark, his brother-in-law, was playing in Goodnight, Vienna in “what you’d call fairly ticht troosers”.

“Because of his rather corpulence, the seams started to split,” says Ron.

“So the wardrobe assistant says: ‘Hold on Harry, I’ve got a needle and thread’ and she was stitching him up when he heard his cue from offstage. Away he bounded on to the stage, and stood there with a needle and thread dangling from his posterior!”

Shona Morgan (Musical Director), Stuart Whyte (Director / Choreographer) and Lynne Binnie (former director and wardrobe mistress) are all integral to the success of TADAMS. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

Luckily for more recent members of Tayport, wardrobe mistress Lynn Binnie has been on hand as a one-woman textile titan, after joining as a director 2011.

“Burst pants, elastic pinging, trousers falling down – it all happens,” Lynn smiles.

“I’ve always done a wee bit of sewing, but mostly I just did what needed done. I’ve made Buddy’s shoes this year.”

Will Ferrell left big (pointy) shoes to fill

On cue, Buddy The Elf, AKA Dundee University graduate Matthew Bain, kicks up one emerald-clad pointy foot.

It’s his first time playing a main part, and he’s delighted to have the chance to ‘spread Christmas cheer by singing loud for all to hear’.

Matthew Bain plays Buddy The Elf in Elf! The Musical this Christmas. Image: TADAMS.

“It’s obviously a heck of a lot of pressure, with Will Ferrell playing the character originally,” explains Matthew. “You’re trying to mimic what he did but also make it a completely different take on the character.”

He reckons his job as a mobile phone salesman helps his stage presence, giving him the confidence of an industrious Christmas elf.

All Shook Up was the 2023 summer show. Image: TADAMS.

“Customer service has helped a lot with my confidence on stage, it’s sort of the same bubbly personality that I bring to the shop as I do to the stage,” he says.

“A constant smile on my face and spring in my step!”

Musicals make memories

With plenty of triumphs to shout about over the years – including building an entire Yellow Brick Road around the hall in their 2012 production of The Wizard of Oz, being the first (and seemingly only) Scottish amateur society to pull off the notoriously challenging show Song of Norway, and having sets designed by internationally renowned designer Robin Don – it’s no wonder the Tayport Musical Society has lasted 75 years.

But what’s clear to see from members past and present, young and old, is that it is the people, and their sense of community, which has kept it going.

Hamish Tough, left, and Ron Caird were involved in the society’s early years. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

“If you’re into something and it’s successful, you get a lot of satisfaction,” says Hamish. “These things come and go, but we’ve never stopped.”

“And,” chimes in his friend Ron, “if we two octogenarians are still surviving, it must guarantee longevity!”

Elf! The Musical will be performed by TADAMS in the Blyth Hall, Newport, from December 5-9 2023. Tickets are available from Ticketsource online.