THE scene is laid in the living room of an old house on the marshes of the Thames estuary and some 10 miles to the east of Gravesend.

So began the three-act play Ladies in Retirement ... and the 67-year history (and counting) of Riding Mill Drama Club.

The year was 1950, the price of entry was threepence and the only thing the then 22 members of the new-found club regretted was that “they hadn’t had the courage to risk more than one performance” in the parish hall.

For, true to subsequent form, the seats sold out in a jiffy.

Today, the amateur dramatics club is truly one of the best in the North. How many others have taken plays to the Edinburgh Fringe, had a member act with the RSC, or worked with People’s Theatre director Chris Heckels, Lee Hall’s one-time drama teacher and the inspiration for the Julie Walters character he wrote into Billy Elliot?

And now a host of fine young bucks have the opportunity to join them. Or, as the man who’s trodden the hallowed Bard-boards in Stratford puts it: “We need cannon fodder.”

Mike Smith, chairman of the group, laughs, then on a more serious note adds: “We’re doing Oh! What a Lovely War next year, in November 2018, to mark the centenary of Armistice Day and as it’s all about people being called up, we need people who look younger than we do.”

If, readers, you are humming and haaing about whether to audition, you can dip your toe in the water towards the end of this year when the club puts on a three-night spectacular designed to encourage anyone with a party-piece to join in the fun.

It might be called Xmas Factor or perhaps Riding Mill’s Got Talent, but whichever, the aim will be the same – to tease out local talent.

Matthew Osmond, who like Mike has been a member since the 1980s, said: “We thought it would be a good way to give people who might be questioning whether they have time to commit to the club, or feel they would like to get to know us first, or who are unsure about their own performance skills, to come along and test the water.

“It’s not just about the acting, either. Anybody who would like to get involved behind the scenes would also be very welcome. There’s always lots to do!”

The last time the troupe did Oh! What a Lovely War was in November 1981, and most of the young’uns in that cast are still with the group today.

This is a club that commands a lot of loyalty.

Having enjoyed 50 golden years of basking in the footlights and helping out back stage by turn, its president, Anne Lawrence, is a good example of that.

She remembers seeing the group in action for the first time, in a production of All For Mary in January 1968.

“I’d been in drama clubs before we moved into the village and I’d just thought, oh, the village drama club, but I thought I’d go along and see them,” she said.

“It was terribly patronising of me and when I realised how good they were, I suddenly wanted to join.

“In my first role, at the age of 30, I played a 60 year old woman and someone later said to me they’d kept going round the village wondering who this grey-haired old lady was and then she’d found out it was me.

“I thought I was going to bow out as God in The Mystery Plays (in 2014), but I didn’t. I’m still here.”

The diversity of the plays Riding Mill Drama Club has brought to life in its 67-year existence shows they have never been afraid of a challenge – but then enter one Mike Fry and they were shunted into another orbit entirely.

The thespian and head of drama at Haydon Bridge High School lost his battle with cancer in September 2009, at the age of 59. His legacy was the new generation of actors and directors he inspired before he went.

Man and club first crossed paths during one of the annual area drama festivals run once upon a time by the then Tynedale Arts Council.

Amateur groups the length and breadth of the district took part and Mike Fry, along with now- retired Queen Elizabeth High School headteacher Tony Webster and the Courant’s late reviewer Peter Lewis, was among the judges.

The club had chosen to perform Nick Warburton’s parody Easy Stages for the 1997 festival, Matthew remembers.

“Mike was very complimentary about the cast, but he said ‘why does a group that has such talent do such a silly play?’”

To cut a long story short, Mike, who was renowned for channelling his promising drama students into many an am-dram club across the district, began to work with the Riding Mill troupe.

Anne said: “He really took us up a notch. He came along the following year and directed us in The Seagull.”

Mike Smith continues, “And he was a great director. After he’d introduced us to Chekhov, he got us doing Shakespeare, most memorably Macbeth, which we would never have considered doing on our own.

“He took us up to the Fringe as well .... “

The Edinburgh offshoot christened themselves The Ding Millers and performed two plays.

One was the 2005 tragi-comedy about seven Tube passengers, Going Underground by Christopher Morgan, and the other Trojan Women by Euripides. A contrast, indeed, and typically brave choices.