Roland Stansell at the Rhumbelow Theatre in Durban is determined to keep theatre alive. Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)
Roland Stansell at the Rhumbelow Theatre in Durban is determined to keep theatre alive. Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

The shows will go on in Durban

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published Oct 9, 2021

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THEATRES have faced some of the toughest times in Durban’s history of entertainment with the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown but “the show must go on”.

Or as Rhumbelow Theatre’s Roland Stansell pointed out this week that at one point a number of years ago, there was only R90 left in the theatre’s account, “so why shouldn’t we survive now?”

Stansell recently put out a plea on social media to help keep the theatre alive and has had a great response, although more will be needed.

The Rhumbelow Theatre in Umbilo will present a live show, The Great British Revolution, this weekend. Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency(ANA)

Based at the Rumbelow Moth Shellhole in Umbilo, the well-known Rhumbelow Theatre has a place in the hearts of many Durbanites who have enjoyed an afternoon or evening out.

The hall was built in Umbilo by men and women who served in World War I. It was officially opened in 1929 with much celebration and was to become a social meeting place for many years.

The hall being built in 1929 would become the Rhumbelow Moths Shellhole and later, the Rhumbelow Theatre.

The origins of the hall being used as a Moth (Memorable Order of the Tin Hats) Shellhole was recorded by Moth Charles Kent who was the Old Bill in 1931/32. Old Bill is the title accorded to the head of each Shellhole.

Kent wrote: “As far as I can remember the Rhumbelow Shellhole came into being following a meeting at the Criterion Theatre of a number of members to organise Shellholes.

“Among them I can remember as present at the meeting were Kingston Russell, (editor of the Natal Mercury), Evo, Bert Constable, Gardyne Greenberg, Dunning, Wight of the Tramways, the writer and others. We gave in our names and occupations and agreed to form Shellholes in our respective areas.

The official opening of the hall in September 1929. It was built by servicemen and women from World War I.

“I drew up a poster and pinned it up on the Old Tramway shelter at the tram terminus at Umbilo. This poster was the cause of the only opposition to the movement I know of during all these years.

“The first letter of the word ’Shellhole’ was pencilled out to read ‘hellhole’ possibly by some irate housewife who saw in these meetings an excuse for the old man to get out occasionally among his wartime pals," wrote Kent.

He wrote that the poster called on all ex-servicemen in the district to fall in at the terminus.

“It was about the middle of 1928. It mentioned Footsloggers, Poultice, Wallopers, Mudlarks, Contemptibles, and other regimental nicknames.

“We then marched onto the back veranda of Mr G Donald’s house that stood at the corner of Bartle Road and Drake Road.

“It was one of the old pioneer homes and had one of the few slate roofs at that time in Durban. He was the first OC (officer commanding). One of the two brothers Keating, present on that occasion, was later made OC. The writer was for a long time secretary or scribe, as now known.

“We only had one meeting at Mr Donald’s house, because we were given permission by Mr Bevis snrr to use an old cowshed as our headquarters. It was about where some flats in Marigny Road now stand. We could make as much row as we liked there and did we, with Chinese bombs at 3d each.

“I well remember the first night when Moth Warwick fell over some barbed wire in the dark, and said it really was like old times. He later took Holy Orders. The quarter bloke was the keeper of the local tearoom. I forgot the name but Jimmy Byrnes (who later died as a result of his Delville wounds) were hard workers in the cause of getting local members into line,” wrote Kent.

This week, current Old Bill Terry Blakey said the name for the shellhole “Rhumbelow” came into being “because we started with a lot of navy guys in the Umbilo area. On a ship, rum is kept below deck”, and the old spelling for rum was Rhum. It also played well with the name of the suburb, Umbilo.

Band warm-up ahead of a performance in 1957.

The hall underwent extensions in the 1950s by servicemen and women from both world wars, but it was only in 2001, that Stansell (ex-Navy) teamed up with the Moths.

In early 2001, The Family Players, a group of comedy drag mime artists who had been doing shows to raise money (for Tafta), were looking for a new home.

Stansell said: “... A friend, who had been helping with artwork for our shows and who was a member of Rhumbelow Moths, suggested we look at the hall, which has a cute little stage and loads of character. Well, the rest is history.”

Over the years, the shows have helped to raise funds to complete a number of renovations on the building, as well as installing air-conditioning and investing in theatre equipment. The Moths still meet regularly at the venue with a number of theatre members having also joined them.

The Rhumbelow Theatre in 2007 where the extension to the roof can be seen.

“The current market is tough and we have not been getting the same amount of footfall through the door as we have in the past,” said Stansell this week.

He is determined that the theatre will survive and has also introduced new revenue streams, such as Rhumbelow Classics Cinema which screens London recorded shows such as Royal Shakespeare, Royal Ballet and other West End Productions.

This week the musical Kinky Boots was showing, and it moves to Tina’s Hotel, Kloof, this weekend.

The live show The Great British Revolution, with Barry Thomson and the Reals, will be at the Rhumbelow Umbilo this weekend. It will showcase music from the likes of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Shadows, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Bad Company, Billy Idol, The Kinks and Rod Stewart.

The venue opens 90 minutes before the show, full bar and food are available or bring a picnic basket (no alcohol to be brought in).

All shows are Covid-19 compliant. For more information, call 082 499 8636; book via email [email protected] or on Computicket http://events.durbantheatre.com/

The Independent on Saturday

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