How newly-wed stage roles led to 40-year marriage

18th August 2020

Romance is often seen on the stage of Sheringham Little Theatre as dramas unfold.

But real life relationships are also hatched there – like the uplifting and poignant story of Ashley and Aileen Gray.

They met as strangers thanks to an “am dram” play, took the parts of newlyweds and went on to enjoy a 40-year real life marriage.

Memories of their first meeting were sparked by a recent story about the Theatre discovering original programmes from its first ever summer drama season in 1960.

They came from the collection of local actress June Cooper, who brought Ashley and Aileen together as she strove to find two more female cast members for a Sheringham Players production of Beside the Seaside back in 1965 … otherwise the show could not go on.

Sheringham Players Beside the Seaside programme

Sheringham Players Beside the Seaside programme

Ashley takes up the tale:

“June (then Wade) told everyone that unless we could find two extra ‘stars’ – a couple of girls – the play couldn’t go on. It was a case of ‘do or die’!

“I left feeling down, as I didn’t know anyone suitable. Once back home, I told my parents about the problems. My dad told me he thought he had the answer, as there was a new family in town who had just moved there from Solihull in Birmingham.

“You must go to see them,” he instructed me, not taking any excuses from me. “They’re very nice and will make you feel welcome.

“But I can’t go,” I replied, “as I don’t know them.”

“You will do as you are told!” he said, brusquely.

“A few nights later, I decided to go. Mrs Black ushered me inside. In the lounge, sitting on a settee, were two girls. One was their daughter, Aileen, the other was Janet Bell, who used to work in Cyril Nunn’s shop selling photographic supplies.

“I spent about an hour explaining to the young ladies about the Sheringham Players and, by the end of that time, they both said they wanted to join.”

“At first I was scheduled to put my design skills to good use, producing posters, programmes and the like for that production of the Players. All the cast for the play had been decided.

“It didn’t take long before Aileen and I became romantically involved. In the play she was cast as Daphne Pepper, one half of a honeymoon couple. As Aileen and I became more ‘friendly’ and as I also had a copy of the script, I learned the part. Subsequently, June gave me the part and I became Yorkshire man Henry Pepper.

Ashley (left) and Aileen (right) in Beside The Seaside, Sheringham Players, Sheringham Little Theatre

Ashley (left) and Aileen (right) in Beside The Seaside

Rehearsal press clipping Sheringham Players Beside the Seaside

Rehearsal press clipping Sheringham Players Beside the Seaside

Sheringham Players Beside the Seaside review

Sheringham Players Beside the Seaside review

“The play was a great success and we got a really good review. And, playing newlyweds, Aileen and I became engaged late in 1966. We married, in foreign parts, Solihull, on 12 August, 1967, and had a great many happy years together.”

Ashley and Aileen Gray on their wedding day

Ashley and Aileen Gray on their wedding day

Ashley and Aileen lived in North Walsham and Wymondham and had a son Julian and daughter Samantha.

He continued:  “Many years ago, when June was still in her dress shop in Church Street, we paid her a visit. It was the first time we had met up with her for a great many years, and it meant so much to Aileen and I.

“Sadly, Aileen passed away suddenly on Friday 6 August 2010. She had done what she always did on a Friday; she had gone swimming that afternoon. She came home, began getting our evening meal ready, and then suddenly told me she didn’t feel well. I got her to sit down for a minute, and she died in my arms. I was heartbroken. We were just six days away from our wedding anniversary.

Aileen and Ashley Gray in later life

Aileen and Ashley Gray in later life

“Ten years on, I still miss Aileen every day, but thanks to the Sheringham Players, I am greatly pleased to have been able to share my life with such a wonderful person.”

Anyone else got something in their eye?

Ashley and Aileen Gray on their wedding day