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Obituary: James Barber

James Barber. Photo: Bryan Allman James Barber. Photo: Bryan Allman

As the general manager and then long-serving director of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in his home town of Guildford, James ‘Jamie’ Barber was a local boy made good. With a third of the productions staged by the Surrey venue under his leadership transferring to the West End, he was arguably the most consistently successful regional theatre manager in 
recent decades.

Born in Guildford and raised in Plaistow, West Sussex and West Horsley, Surrey, Barber began his career as a casual followspot operator at Leatherhead’s Thorndike Theatre, while still at school. After a brief dalliance as a musician in a rock band, he studied stage management at LAMDA.

He began his association with the Yvonne Arnaud as an assistant stage manager in 1978, quickly progressing to deputy and company stage manager roles before become the theatre’s general manager in 1984. During his six years in the role, he oversaw the revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that transferred to Broadway with a cast including Peter O’Toole, John Mills and Dora Bryan in 1987.

In 1992, he succeeded Val May as theatre director and set about building the venue’s profile while steering it through a prolonged period of financial insecurity and the recurring threat of partial or complete closure.

Barber was just a year into his tenure as general manager when William Rees-Mogg’s The Glory of the Garden report prompted South-East Arts to withdraw its annual grant of £106,000 in the expectation that the Arts Council of Great Britain would take responsibility for funding the theatre. The decision led to a decade of brinkmanship between the two bodies that led to the theatre going dark for prolonged periods over several years and caused Barber to warn in 1995 that the venue “must expand or die”.

The following year, the county council withdrew its funding for the theatre as the squeeze on regional arts money tightened. Undeterred, Barber pressed ahead with his plans for an upgrade of its Mill Studio, securing a £99,000 grant from the Arts Council in 1997.

More than a decade later, Barber saw the theatre through another funding crisis when Arts Council England withdrew its annual allocation of £448,000 in 2009.

That the theatre survived was due to a long-standing partnership with producer Duncan Weldon and Barber’s shrewd courting of the commercial sector. Of the 157 productions mounted at the Yvonne Arnaud since 1991 (77 of which were new plays), 58 transferred to theatres in London. In the same period, he toured shows to 80 towns in the UK, providing 873 weeks of product for regional theatres.

As theatre director, one of his first initiatives was to establish a commercial touring arm, which launched in 1991 with Penelope Keith, Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Keith returned in 1997 for a tour of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession and again in 2001 for the world premiere of Noel Coward’s last play, the backstage comedy Star Quality, which transferred to the Apollo Theatre in London’s West End.

In the 1990s, Barber’s association with independent producers attracted leading British theatre talent and Hollywood stars to Guildford, including Geraldine McEwan (Coward’s Hay Fever), Margaret Tyzack and Felicity Kendal (Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink) and Richard Briers and Paul Eddington (David Storey’s Home). Hollywood icon Raquel Welch was seen in Shaw’s The Millionairess, and film star Gene Wilder in Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

It was a formula that continued into the 21st century, beginning with Michael Gambon, Rupert Graves and Douglas Hodge in a revival of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker (2000). Other notable productions included Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy with Edward Fox (2002), Timothy West in Alan Bennett’s The Old Country (2006), Antony Sher as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Kean (2007) and Patricia Routledge leading the cast of Royce Ryton’s Crown Matrimonial (2008).

Recent successes included an admired revival of JB Priestley’s When We Are Married (2010) and the premiere of David Seidler’s stage adaptation of his film The King’s Speech in 2012, which subsequently transferred to the Wyndham’s Theatre.

Fittingly, Barber’s final production, Dick Whittington, which ended its run on January 7 this year, established a new box office record for the venue’s seasonal pantomimes.

James Barber was born on May 13, 1958, and died on December 29, 2017, aged 59.