Hazel Vincent Wallace, founder and director of the Thorndike Theatre, Leatherhead, died on November 3, just one month short of her 100th birthday.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019, the Thorndike was one of the great success stories of regional theatre in the second half of the 20th century before closing in 1997 when public funding was withdrawn. It reopened in 2001.
A descendent of the once hugely popular 19th-century Irish composer William Vincent Wallace, she was born in the Midlands on December 8, 1919 and, after studying social and political science at the University of Birmingham, worked in personnel management for a wartime London munitions factory. At night, she was active on stage as an actor and dancer in the pioneering left-wing Unity Theatre, alongside Alfie Bass and Ted Willis. She was so versatile that she become understudy for all the female roles in Noel Langley’s post-war hit musical Cage Me a Peacock.
With the military entertainment unit ENSA, she toured army camps and factories, one of her colleagues being the late Gillian Lynne.Vincent Wallace gave Lynne her first directing credit with Bill Owen and Tony Russell’s The Matchgirls in 1965.
A visit to her sister in New York led to bit parts on US television and a first encounter with Broadway, its slick, in-your-face, energetic and, above all, audience-grabbing, contemporary edge leaving an indelible mark.
Returning home, she joined Oscar Quitak’s Under Thirty Theatre Group where she had her first experiences of performing in the West End. The pair’s first venture was to open the Buckstone Club behind the Haymarket Theatre, which quickly became a popular post-show meeting place for actors.
In need of a new home for the group, in 1951 Vincent Wallace and Quitak relocated to Leatherhead to convert the town’s former Victoria Hall, then the Ace Cinema, into the Leatherhead Theatre Club. Within a decade, it had attracted a membership of 14,000 with demand for tickets often out-stripping the venue’s then 300-seat capacity.
Early talents spotted by Vincent Wallace included on and offstage appearances by playwright-in-waiting Alan Ayckbourn, Peter O’Toole, Peter Bowles, Penelope Keith and a future Bishop of Stafford as a stage manager. Vanessa Redgrave and Nyree Dawn Porter, in her first UK stage appearance, were also seen together in panto at the venue.
In the late 1960s, with the help of birth control pioneer Marie Stopes, Vincent Wallace raised £330,000 to convert another dilapidated cinema into a theatre. Designed by Roderick Ham, the new 530-seat venue opened in 1969 as the Thorndike Theatre. Now a Grade II-listed building, it was named in honour of actor Sybil Thorndike.
In later years, Vincent Wallace was instrumental in arguing for the creation of university and conservatoire degree courses to teach theatre management, pithily pointing out: “Without good theatre management, where will actors work?”
Having created the template for modern arts centres nationwide with the Thorndike’s multi-purpose, community-focused reputation – “Plays Plus” was her credo when it opened – she retired in 1980. When the theatre closed in 1997, despite its use as a regional base by the Peter Hall Company and a spell under Bill Kenwright’s management, she removed Thorndike’s name from its title. It continues to operate as the Leatherhead Theatre.
She was appointed an OBE for services to the theatre in 1971.