September 18, 2008

Tributes As Golden Girl Shirl Takes a Final Bow

By Adam Blakeman

Tributes have been paid to a woman described as a local pioneer of the amateur dramatics scene.

Shirley Steels, president of Porthill Players, died at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire on Friday after battling against ill health.

The 73-year-old, who had been involved in theatre for more almost 60 years, will probably be best remembered as the woman who converted a group of pantomime actors into one of the most successful amateur dramatic groups in North Staffordshire.

Mrs Steels, who lived in Wolstanton, started acting at the age of 14 at Newcastle's former Municipal Hall.

She joined the Porthill Players in the early 1970s and, according to chairman Jonathan Fernyhough, took the group from strength to strength.

Mr Fernyhough, who has been chairman for 15 years, said: "She joined the society with a great deal of experience and ever since then it has just got bigger and better.

"Not only did she take part in the plays, but she also wrote and directed some of them too.

"She was a real fountain of knowledge, you could call her one of the true pioneers of the society.

"She made the Porthill Players what it is today.

"Over the last few years she has been dogged by ill health, it's just been one thing after another.

"She had breast cancer a number of years ago and battled and overcame that, then she was on dialysis twice a week.

"But she always guaranteed she would be at rehearsals and would be looking her best with a big smile on her face, no matter how much pain she was in underneath.

"She had been in hospital for the last three weeks and in the end I think it was just one battle too many."

With Mrs Steels at the helm, the players soon left their original home - St Andrew's Church Hall, Porthill - in favour of the Mitchell Memorial Theatre to accommodate the expanding numbers who wanted to see their efforts.

In 2002, Shirley was presented with a gold bar as a tribute to her 50 years in the amateur theatre industry.

The group has continued to grow and today they perform before big audiences at The Regent theatre and the Victoria Hall.

Sheila Fernyhough, group ticket secretary, said: "Shirley was always involved with the group, whether it was producing shows or just watching the rehearsals."

John Stone, vice-chairman of the players, said: "In 1978 me and my twin brother, Simon, took part in our first show, Dick Whittington.

"I was scared to death but Shirley, who was producing the show, was brilliant to us.

"She was admired by a lot of people and very well respected. She dedicated her life to the Porthill Players."

The society plans to create a Shirley Steels bursary, which will see one of its members paid to go to The National Operatic and Dramatic Association Summer School each year.

It has also dedicated its show, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, at the Victoria Hall in December to Mrs Steels.

A date for Mrs Steels's funeral is yet to be decided.

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