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You are in: Oxford > History > Local History > Looking back on 70 Years of the Oxford Playhouse

Oxford Playhouse

Looking back on 70 Years of the Oxford Playhouse

Features and interviews looking back at the history of one of our beloved theatre venues.

In October 2008, Oxford Playhouse celebrates 70 years in Beaumont Street.

Did You Know?

Flora Robson spoke her first words as an actress at Oxford Playhouse

Maggie Smith made her first public appearance

Ken Tynan made his acting debut

Susan Hampshire painted the ladies’ loos in 1956

John Gielgud directed Peggy Ashcroft in Romeo and Juliet

Ned Sherrin was a fairy, Nigel Lawson a chorus boy

Other famous OUDS students who chose not to make a career out of acting: Edward Heath, Joanna Trollope, Shirley Williams

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor appeared in a famous OUDS production of Dr Faustus

First successful Chekhov play performed in England

Prince Edward was an assistant technical manager on the opening night of the revamped Playhouse in 1991

The theatre has a major place at the heart of British theatre history. Over the past seven decades the Playhouse has seen a galaxy of distinguished actors grace its stage including John Gielgud, Ian McKellen, Dirk Bogarde, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Sean Connery, Prunella Scales and Timothy (and Sam) West, Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack.

Other leading players have made their mark, one way or another, at the theatre: Susan Hampshire and Alan Ayckbourn were assistant stage managers and Tony Hancock was a pantomime dame. Other real-life dames, including Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Sybil Thorndike, have given some electrifying performances.

Oxford Playhouse

The Playhouse. Photo by Lindsay Viner.

The theatre has also been a hotbed of university talent, launching the careers of Tyrone Guthrie, Peter Brook, Kenneth Tynan, Dudley Moore, Mel Smith, Rowan Atkinson, Maria Aitken and others – not to mention Edward Heath, Joanna Trollope and Shirley Williams who also trod the boards as students.

Memorable plays, world premieres, award-winning productions, ground breaking work – this year, Oxford Playhouse celebrates 70 golden years, together with some of the actors, directors, producers, musicians and other artists who have brought them to life.

One man has made it his job to make the theatre itself the star of the show this year.

Former Oxford Mail theatre critic Don Chapman has published 'Oxford Playhouse - High and Low Drama in a University City'. He joined us to provide a whistle stop tour, explaining that the acting group at the Playhouse can trace its origins far further back than 1938...

What Every Woman (Student) Knows

"The Tribulations of Chaperonage"

"Playhouse-goers during J. B. Fagan’s regime ranged from rich students like the Earl of Longford, future director of the Gate Theatre, Dublin, to impoverished ones like Emlyn Williams; from ex-actress Lillah McCarthy to Prof. Murray; from future historians A.L. Rowse and A.J.P. Taylor to future authors Evelyn Waugh and Peter Quennell; from future theatre practitioners like Norman Marshall to future critics like Harold Hobson. The most flamboyant undergraduate personality of the 1920s, Harold Acton, who recited poems through a megaphone, soon became Cherwell’s critic Megalophonides. Like the others, he came alone or with male friends. A student who took a girl to the Playhouse had to buy a seat for her minder. Chaperonage was as much part of Oxford life in the 1920s as in the days of Charley’s Aunt. An Isis cartoon showed a couple sandwiching a frump. The lady was Monna Vanna, the chaperon The Green Goddess, the man The Bad Man."

Excerpt from 'Oxford Playhouse - High and Low Drama in a University City' See above image: What Every Woman (Student) Knows, the tribulations of chaperonage as drawn by C. E. Escritt (Keble College), The Isis , 4 June 1924
Settling down for another successful panto

Getting ready for the panto

Sheila Robbins from Hinksey Hilltop shared some of her memories as former wardrobe mistress for the theatre.

To find out about the magical formula that brings Pantomime to life, we spoke to Paul Knight, musical director of the first Playhouse Panto Cinderella, back in 1993.

84 year old Jean Kilby from Wantage spoke to us about her first trip to the theatre. We were also joined Jess Hadley, an Oxford Brookes drama student and graduate of the Youth Theatre at the Playhouse.

After 18 years as director of the theatre, Tish Francis is stepping down and Michelle Dickson is taking over. They both spoke to us about the Playhouse past, present and future.

Richard Wilson appears in a special show

Richard Wilson appears in a special show

Richard Wilson will head the Playhouse anniversary celebrations. See below for some special events to mark 70 years.

Many Happy Returners

25 Oct 2008
Time: 19:30 - 21:45
Revisit theatrical highlights and memorable moments with host Libby Purves and some celebrated past players and playmakers including Richard Wilson, star of One Foot in the Grave, East Enders star Louise Jameson, Philip Pullman, Philip Voss and William Russell as they take us through the war years, the golden eras of Frank Shelley and Frank Hauser, Anvil in the 80s, theatre's renaissance in the 90s, right up to today. There'll be other special stories too from some unique guests. See just why audiences - and artists - make so many happy returns to the Playhouse.

Seventy! Not Out

A Gala Evening hosted by Gyles Brandreth
26 Oct 2008
Time:19:30 - 22.00
All our yesterdays and some of our tomorrows: an amazing night of high drama and high jinks celebrating 70 years of the Playhouse in Beaumont Street. Stars, music and surprises galore. Guests include Oliver Ford-Davies, Belinda Lang, Diana Quick, Toby Jones, 'Dame' Simon Green and David Wood.

last updated: 10/10/2008 at 16:36
created: 08/10/2008

Have Your Say

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

frank taylor (the bosun)
in 1969 michael healey did a production of the tempest with frank hauser and we did one performance of "the sea and the mirror" for W.H.Auden after the show

David and Francesca Garman
Wonderful to hear Sheila Robbins recalling the creativity and pace of working at the Oxford Players and in particular for the Meadow Players as a team which is when we were involved.Since those days we have run our own successful business in the rehab industry,(Mangar International Ltd)a seemingly totally different scenario; but what we learnt from Sheila, Betty , Frank Hauser and all the team, was that whatever happened, the show had to go on, and that has proven to be an invaluable lesson for which we are forever grateful! We enjoyed working for meadow Players hugely!

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