With Sybil Thorndike as its patron, Leatherhead was once home to a thriving repertory theatre, but has since struggled to rebuild its identity. Members of the Leatherhead Rep team tell Julia Rank why returning to this producing model is breathing new life into its programming
With London at the centre of the theatre world, it can be easy to overlook activities taking place only a short journey outside. Leatherhead in Surrey has a notable 20th-century theatrical history. Director Hazel Vincent Wallace ran the original incarnation of the town’s theatre as a private club from the 1950s, before its popularity led to her opening the Thorndike Theatre in 1969. When she proposed naming the new theatre after Sybil Thorndike, the theatrical grande dame, who was committed to touring and campaigning for left-wing causes, responded: “I would be honoured – oh so very much. I hope I’ll be able to come down and perform one day if I’m still on my legs.”
Built within a former cinema in the centre of Leatherhead, the theatre was the result of a series of remarkable community-led fundraising initiatives that raised the equivalent of £5.8 million. Roderick Ham, who went on to help create the Derby Playhouse and New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, designed the 530-seat theatre, featuring Thorndike’s favourite kind of thrust stage. It was deemed “futuristic” when it first opened in 1969 and was ahead of its time in its disabled access provision. Dame Sybil’s final production, appropriately, took place in the Thorndike Theatre’s first season, in There Was an Old Woman by John Graham.
But, after 28 years as a repertory theatre, it was forced to close in 1997 due to financial difficulties. It reopened in 2001 as the Leatherhead Theatre, hosting films, community events and amateur dramatics, but has struggled to rebuild its identity and the prestige it had enjoyed in previous decades.
Everything comes around in cycles. Katherine Mount founded the production company Hordern Ciani four years ago with Teresa Barlow. Its projects include a summer repertory company at the Mowlem Theatre in Swanage, which was seen by Leatherhead Theatre’s artistic programmer Jennai Cox last year.
Following a successful first season at the Leatherhead Theatre this April, the company returns this month with a three-week repertory season. It includes a stage adaption of the 1990s retirement home sitcom Waiting for God by Michael Aitken (whose Leatherhead-based grandmother was an active fundraiser for the theatre along with her Airedale dogs) and Dave Simpson’s new musical version of E Nesbit’s children’s classic The Railway Children. Both productions were presented in Swanage over the summer. The third show in the season is Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings: one of Ayckbourn’s first jobs was as an assistant stage manager for Wallace, whom he called a “guardian angel auntie”.
Mount explains that the season is based on attempting to build trust with audiences who might not be regular theatregoers by offering recognisable names, without compromising on the quality of writing.
Returning to Leatherhead to direct Season’s Greetings, having directed several productions at the Thorndike, Guy Slater remembers it as a theatre with an exceptionally loyal core audience, where Wallace was “an admirable theatre boss – very clear about what she wanted, no-nonsense and you could feel guaranteed that most productions would play to at least 90% capacity”. The programming was on the “safe” side with little new writing.
In future seasons, Mount hopes the programming will become more adventurous as the company becomes more established and there is the possibility that the Casson Room, originally designed as a space for youth theatre, could become a hub for new writing.
There’s only a week’s rehearsal for each production and each has a different director. Although there is a sense of ‘flying by the seat of your pants’, the process is based on tested and effective methods requiring exceptional levels of precision. Actors are required to be off-book by the time rehearsals begin. Mount looks for actors who are able “to make quick decisions and portray characters truthfully without the luxury of hours of conversation and research” as well as balancing three scripts at once. Behind the scenes, designer Christina Cammarota is “perfecting the art of recycling and economising – that’s rep for you!”, while creating imaginative and appropriate designs for each production.
‘Rep actors need to make quick decisions and portray characters truthfully without the luxury of hours of conversation and research’
When Mount was at drama school in the 1990s, her tutors frequently lamented the fact that she and her coursemates wouldn’t have the opportunity to practise their skills in rep. Has rep become somewhat romanticised since its demise? The traditional 52-week model must have made considerable physical and mental demands on everyone involved.
Slater, who ran the Horseshoe Theatre Company in Basingstoke from 1974 to 1981, is clear-sighted about the pros and cons. He recalls stereotypes around ‘reppy’ actors who would learn lines mechanically and give safe or hammy performances. His nostalgia stems from local audience members who would stop him for a chat in the street to give their opinion of what they had just seen and how it compared with other productions in the season, as well as giving talks to schools, Rotary Clubs and Women’s Institutes who would strongly identify with ‘their’ theatre.
In line with these community-based principles, the company held an open rehearsal of Waiting for God and will play schools’ matinees of The Railway Children as well as casting local teenagers as little sister Phyllis and friend Jim. There are opportunities for students from Epsom College to assist with costume, make-up and stage management. Members of the cast and crew can also be hosted by local families in the town. For young residents, it may be even more exciting than a visit to the West End than because the project belongs to their hometown, while long-standing residents have shared their memories of the Thorndike and their pleasure in it returning to its roots.
For Mount, the responsibility of following in the footsteps of Hazel Vincent Wallace and Sybil Thorndike is not something to be taken lightly. The busts of Thorndike and her husband Lewis Casson remain on display in the theatre and there is the possibility of reinstating her name, especially as so few theatres are named after women. Thorndike called the theatre bearing her name “a theatre after my own heart, which changes its bill frequently, and belongs to its community”, which for Mount is “precisely where we want to be, and where our values so clearly align with theirs”.