‘Music Through The Years’ by The Playhouse Theatre at Changi P.O.W. Camp (March 1945)

Music through the Years
Music through the Years

Henri Ecoma was clearly a gifted female impersonator and also performed in a ballet piece called ‘La Lanière’ part of a presentation called ‘Music Through the Years’ at Changi Gaol in March 1945.  This appears to have prompted the Japanese authorities to order the closure of the theatre as promoting ‘bad thoughts’. (See Singapore Diary: the Hidden Journal of R M Horner (Spellmount Ltd, Gloucestershire, UK 2006 ISBN 978-1-86227-430-3))

“The Playhouse decided next to stage a cavalcade of song. This commended itself enormously to the Pommy element, who like nothing so well as good old tunes, and even we Australians caught the infection of their enthusiasm.
Bill Williams, the pianist who dragged a small portable pedal organ all round Thailand and played boogie on it in every camp, planned the show. Orchestrations were attacked with enthusiasm by a dozen different men in the band. Searle designed a score of quickly – changed sets. The cavalcade was to cover the gamut of twentieth – century popular tunes and to conclude with the latest Changi compositions.
The first night was an elaborate affair attended by the entire Japanese administration, including General Saito. Quickly the show swung into action and as song followed song, set followed set and novelty followed novelty; it became obvious that the audience – Nips and all – were with it, gripped.
The elaborate scene changes went without a hitch, Piddington and Buckingham sweating over charts and property lists. Searle, serious and unemotional, stood in one corner drawing an Indonesian youth as he danced.
Then came the finale, a new composition of Bill Williams’. First of all, with much hooting and smoke, the bow of a steamer sailed majestically on to the stage. It was the full height of the stage and it’s creation had involved every ounce of Searle’s artistry and the carpenter’s ingenuity. And, as it reached centre stage, Bill started singing his new song, ‘On Our Return’. The company joined in, flooding on to the stage like voyagers about to embark. The audience was electrified and joined in the last chorus. The curtain rang down and midst frantic applause Saito and his entourage stalked out – in sullen silence.
That was the last show to be staged in the Playhouse. Saito, furious at the title of the song, at its sentiment, at its reception, banned all further entertainment and would barely be dissuaded from having Williams and the entire company executed. The war, he pointed out angrily, would last a hundred years. Nippon was Number One!
Negotiations to get the ban relaxed were futile. Saito stuck grimly to his decision. Not only that, but rations were cut and a search staged for radios. The Nips were obviously extremely put out.”
Source: The Naked Island by Russell Braddon; 1955 edition Pan Books Ltd, Pg 275


Note: Ronnie Horner, Wray Gibson, Gil Mitchell and Henri Ecoma listed in the cast’. Images of these three can be seen at ‘Caricatures & Portraits’ on this site.

“In Changi we slept in a courtyard at the end of which stood a huge building forty feet high which was a stage with a wide proscenium: a courtyard whose space was mostly taken up by seats in the open air made out of coco-nut trees split down their centre and placed flat side upwards. This courtyard was Changi’s theatre – the Playhouse, as it was called.”
“Ronald Searle,& other artists, designed and carried out the sets – décor, I believe, is the word – for many of the Playhouse shows, which ranged from Coward to pantomime and which in quality and production could easily have taken their place in any of London’s West End theatres.”
“Hap Kelly was a Yank from Texas. He had joined the US Navy as a trumpeter, but his ship had been sunk between Java and Sumatra in 1942. He was washed up on a beach fourteen miles away in Java. He was captured in the jungle and shipped to Singapore. He now played the trombone – rather brilliantly – in the Playhouse orchestra.” He is mentioned in this theatre program.
Source: The Naked Island by Russell Braddon; 1955 edition Pan Books Ltd, Pg 255 – 258