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Oxford Playhouse: the theatre where Palin, Connery and Dench cut their teeth

Sean Connery, right, as Pentheus in The Bacchae at Oxford Playhouse (1959) Sean Connery, right, as Pentheus in The Bacchae at Oxford Playhouse (1959)
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It is 80 years since Oxford Playhouse started with a weekly rep, and has staged professional and student shows since. Nick Smurthwaite discovers the stars who graced its stage and the chequered history between town and gown

It may not have a designated drama faculty but Oxford University has a unique resource for students with a passion for drama in Oxford Playhouse, which opened, in its present form, 80 years ago this month.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 production of Dr Faustus
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 production of Dr Faustus

Since the 1960s, Oxford’s many student drama groups have been producing shows at the Playhouse and its 50-seater Burton Taylor Studio, giving them free access to the venue’s team of experienced professional theatremakers and technical crews.

The Playhouse has been a charitable trust since 1991 and the relationship with the university dates back further – there have always been representatives from academe on the board of trustees.

In his 2008 history of the Playhouse, former Oxford Mail critic Don Chapman refers to the “chequered history of its relationship with town and gown”, referring to the decades-long debate over funding. Since it serves two constituencies – the university and the general public – should the Playhouse be funded by the city council or the university?

The present theatre in Beaumont Street, leased from St John’s College, started out as a weekly rep in 1938, changing to fortnightly in 1950. Countless future stars of stage and screen cut their teeth at the Playhouse in the 1940s and 1950s, including Sean Connery, Maggie Smith, Tony Hancock, Robert Hardy and Ronnie Barker, while the 23-year-old Peter Hall, commuting between the Playhouse and the Arts Theatre in London, directed 11 shows there in 10 months.

Later in the 1960s, when the university took over the running of the Playhouse, it was possible to see student performances from Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Imogen Stubbs, David Wood, John Sergeant and Sheridan Morley. At this time the resident professional company, Meadow Players, run by Frank Hauser, could only take to the stage during university holidays and four weeks during term time.

This led to confusion among the public as to which shows were professional and which were produced by students. One can only guess at the chaos that must have gone on backstage.

Alan Badel and Felicity Kendal in Kean (1970). Photo: Studio Edmark

It did however provide fantastic opportunities for emerging talent, such as Braham Murray’s original anti-capital punishment show Hang Down Your Head and Die in 1964, inspired by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, which transferred first to the West End, then to Broadway, and launched Murray’s directorial career in a blaze of glory.

Another highlight of this period was Nevill Coghill’s 1966 production of Doctor Faustus for Oxford University Dramatic Society, which boasted Coghill’s former student Richard Burton in the title role and his wife Elizabeth Taylor as Helen of Troy. It was made into a film, with a cast of Oxford students, the proceeds of which established the Burton Taylor Studio.

In terms of all-professional shows, the most enduring box office hit of this time was the musical Canterbury Tales, inspired by Coghill’s translation of Chaucer’s classic, which ran for 2,082 performances in the West End, and has been revived countless times since.

Squabbling over timetabling and lack of resources continued between successive resident companies and students until finances and tempers reached breaking point in the 1980s. The choice was stark: to survive, the Playhouse would either have to become a receiving house, or a charitable trust.

Judi Dench and Leonard Rossiter in The Rules (1966). Photo: Studio Edmark
Judi Dench and Leonard Rossiter in The Rules (1966). Photo: Studio Edmark

The latter option was chosen and in 1991 the Playhouse reopened as an independent charitable trust, producing five student shows a year – the system that is still in place today. Jointly responsible for running the venue were Tish Francis and Hedda Beeby, both in their 30s, who had previously worked together at Shared Experience. Among other things, they introduced a bidding system for Oxford’s student drama companies for the first time.

Michelle Dickson, who succeeded the pair in 2008, extended the Playhouse’s reach by taking itinerant theatre to outlying parts of Oxfordshire, in the hope that it would encourage non-theatregoers to visit the Playhouse. This summer a pop-up version of One Small Step, a family show about the 1960s space race between the US and Russia, was staged in parks and open spaces playing to 5,000 people.

Current director and chief executive Louise Chantal has been associated with the Playhouse since she was a student in the 1980s, and was the first licensee of the Burton Taylor Studio.

She says: “It was an advantage for me knowing the eccentricities of the Oxford year, what the requirements of the various student bodies are, how it all works. The ivory tower image of the city is out of date. The population has grown by 30% in the last 10 years and there is a high level of deprivation. It has one of the highest rates of illiteracy in the UK.”

One of Chantal’s innovations, since she arrived in 2014, was to set up Oxford Playhouse Playmakers, which sends established writers into primary schools for a term to encourage pupils to create drama. The best ones are produced at the Young Players Festival in March.

“The feedback we’re getting is that it has already had a positive effect on literacy in Oxford’s primary schools,” she says.

Even though Oxford Playhouse’s audience is on the increase, it still struggles to make the books balance. “It’s a risky balance,” says Chantal. “You can never second-guess an audience. Even a brilliant show sometimes fails to put bums on seats.”

Oxford Playhouse’s 80th Anniversary Gala Performance is on October 21

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