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September 2019

Faith at Play: a reminiscence of Bill and Sylvia Fry

Bill Risebero

It was Graham and Sue Dowell who first told us about this innovative Christian theatre company called Theatre Roundabout.  Some of us began to make the occasional foray to remote church halls on the edge of London to see Sylvia Read and William Fry in performance. We weren’t yet aware of the sheer scale of their enterprise. Between 1961, when the company took shape, and 2008, when they retired, they did over 4200 performances of 30 or more productions, mainly in the British Isles but also in Europe, the Caribbean and the USA.

The company was first managed by the dramatist Peter Albery, severely disabled in WW2, whom Sylvia married, as she said, ‘in order to nurse him’. As well as being an actress, she too was a playwright and it was in her modern Epiphany play A Strange Coming, in 1959, that she met, and was cast opposite, the relatively inexperienced actor William Fry. They each played six different roles thereby setting a future Theatre Roundabout pattern: two-handed plays in which both play many parts, switching effortlessly from one to the other with a turn of the head or a change of facial expression or voice. Their virtuosity was remarkable and one evening, at the end of A Strange Coming, an audience member wondered to her neighbour why so few people were taking the curtain call. ‘Where,’ she asked, ‘are all the others?’

Peter could see the chemistry between Sylvia and Bill, both on and offstage. When he and Sylvia - and Bill too, since the place was very big - moved into a house in Golders Green, he did, as she says, ‘a wonderful thing’. He offered to have their marriage annulled to allow Bill and Sylvia to marry. This they did. It was a difficult situation for Sylvia’s adopted children and Bill’s two boys by his first marriage. However, they could see Peter, Sylvia and Bill living together in mutual love and support till Peter’s death in 1979.

As man and wife, Bill and Sylvia’s onstage rapport could grow. Though their raison d’etre was to do religious plays like Pilgrim’s Progress, The Way of the Cross, Canterbury’s Burning and Shadowlands, they also adapted the classics: plays ranging from Hamlet to Under Milk Wood and novels like Vanity Fair, Pride and Prejudice or Lark Rise. The adaptation of novels brought another stylistic innovation with the two actors switching not only between characters but also from narrative to dialogue and back again.

It is remarkable how long Theatre Roundabout was able to continue. Sometimes there were grants or paid invitations to churches or universities or the support of well-wishers, but the company still had to be run on a shoe-string. Hotels were expensive, so what about a motor-home, to take them from one venue to another and give them somewhere to stay at night? They called their vehicle ‘Mercy’ and Mercy was always with them as they became real travelling players.

They were good raconteurs and their dinner-table anecdotes gave a flavour of life on the road: the times they arrived to find the hall unprepared and were obliged the put out chairs or rig the lights themselves; the time they parked for the night on a snowy moor and got shut out of the van in their night clothes; the time - again on a lonely moor - when they met a traveller who turned out later to be a murderer on the run; the time, in the USA, when their flight was delayed and they decided to travel from Omaha, via Denver, to Seattle in full Regency costume, so as to be sure of starting the show on time.

Their life was not possible without meticulous organisation, which they did themselves. Their grasp of detail was enormous and it was always an ambition to compile all their records into a big, comprehensive history of Theatre Roundabout. This never came off, though their other publications were impressive enough. Together they wrote Christian Theatre; a Handbook for Church Groups (1986), an invaluable guide to putting on plays in a church. Sylvia published a modern mystery play of the crucifixion, The Hill (1991). Another book of religious plays, compiled by them both, Faith at Play, still awaits publication after, in their words, ‘the kindest rejection letters you ever read’.

But though there isn’t a mammoth history of the company, there is now perhaps an even better thing, namely the Theatre Roundabout archive in the Bristol University theatre collection. This includes business papers, programmes, photographs, scripts, books and even costumes and props, from nearly 50 years of playmaking. At its opening event in November 2014 I was struck by the distances many guests had travelled, from churches and organisations all over the country, whose lives had been enriched by Bill and Sylvia’s work and who retained a sincere affection for them.

And we must count ourselves fortunate to be among them. After their retirement, still living in Golders Green, Bill and Sylvia were faithful, worshipful members of our congregation. They read the Psalms and prayed together daily. In Hampstead, their sincere warmth brought them many good friends. They followed the Hampstead Players with interest, encouraging talent when they saw it. They commented on or reviewed plays, with valuable insights into Twelfth Night, Waiting for Godot and Cherry Orchard.

It is perhaps to be expected that when they did a ‘Desert Island Discs’ for the church in 2008 they scripted the whole conversation, to make it as professional as possible. It was through Bill that the Players’ production of The Way of the Cross took place, an extraordinary play which had been an important part of their own career. And eventually Bill was persuaded to take part in our own plays: as a ‘hilariously dry’ headmaster in Forty Years On, as a poignant Captain Cat in Under Milk Wood and as a ‘fiery’ John of Gaunt bravely confronting King Richard II.

However, it is through those remarkable two-handers, performed joyfully, often under difficult circumstances, that he and Sylvia will be remembered by most people. Through them they transmitted a sincere religious message without being over-pious, enabling many more people both to appreciate the drama and to allow Christianity into their lives. They were aware that their talents came from God and that it was only right that they should give them back to him. They showed me a draft of Faith at Play. I wasn’t sure then about the title - a bit frivolous, I thought. But on second thoughts I recognised that it captures perfectly the combination of serious Christian purpose and lightness of touch that so characterised their life and work.

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