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One company, two people, 30 shows and 4,000+ performances

Production photograph for Lovely Day for the Race performed by William Fry and Sylvia Read

Lovely Day for the Race John Vickers courtesy of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection

Press release issued: 14 November 2014

The archive of the remarkable theatre company, Theatre Roundabout, has been donated to the University of Bristol Theatre Collection

Theatre Roundabout was a unique company which originally specialised in religious theatre.  It started life as a London company called Theatre Group Productions, changing its name in 1961.  Managed by the playwright Peter Albery, who remained chairman until his death in 1979, it soon developed into a genre-breaking touring company playing in all sorts of venues from small churches to cathedrals, arts venues to village halls and, by 1967, touring internationally.

The vast majority of Theatre Roundabout’s productions were two-person shows featuring William Fry and his late wife, Sylvia Read who together gave over 4,000 performances of more than 30 plays.  The very fact that they survived as a going concern for over forty years, while most other similar companies fell by the wayside, gives an indication of the couple’s skill and dedication.

Sylvia and William developed a unique technique: by playing numerous characters and combining dialogue and narrative they found a way they could dramatize the great novels (Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Howards End) and turn them into two handers.  Their adaptation of Vanity Fair required Sylvia to play eight parts and William thirteen, while Hamlet required the pair to play fourteen different parts whilst operating the music and sound effect tapes themselves too.

They also kept up their religious work, with shows specially written for the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG) and the Religious Drama Society, Radius.  Some productions, such as Pilgrims Progress and Shadowlands were highly successful in spanning both ‘markets’.

Their phenomenal touring schedule often required long drives across country, with every day bringing a new stage to set up and perform on and every night a new bed to sleep in.  

The situation was eased with the purchase of a motor caravan, the Wanderer, in the 1960s, then later, in 1972, the Roadranger which became their touring home, office, emergency dressing room, a place to eat and entertain friends and above all a refuge from the stresses on life on tour.  In 1983, after driving nearly a quarter of a million miles together they needed another motor caravan and purchased the bespoke Mercy for £16,000 – more than two years of their joint total salary.

Theatre Roundabout last performed in 2008 by which time their pioneering new ways of adapting and writing plays and performing in all sorts of venue, which had once broken with convention, were now firmly established in wider theatrical practice in the UK and abroad. 

The history of this remarkable company is recorded within its archive which comprises business papers, programmes, photographs, scripts, costumes, props and other accessories.  The archive was donated to the Theatre Collection in 2013/14 by the Directors of Theatre Roundabout and William Fry.

An exhibition, Theatre Roundabout:  Travelling by Stages, tells the story of this extraordinary company and is on display at the Theatre Collection from Monday 17 November 2014 until Wednesday 27 March 2015.

Jo Elsworth, Director of the Theatre Collection said: ”This exhibition tells the story of Theatre Roundabout and the extraordinary energy and commitment of the two dedicated individuals at its heart.”

William Fry, the only surviving co-founder of Theatre Roundabout, said: “For me, Theatre Roundabout was a glorious experience in every way: working with Sylvia Read, the places we visited, the people we met – it was like the most wonderful gift.” 

The exhibition is open Mondays 12pm-4pm; Tuesdays-Fridays 10am-4pm from 17 November 2014 – 27 March 2015 (excluding 19 December – 4 January) at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, 21 Park Row, Bristol BS1 5LT.  Admission free.

Further information

University of Bristol Theatre Collection 

The University of Bristol Theatre Collection contains one of the largest archives relating to British theatre history in the world.  It is also an accredited museum and a research facility open to all.  Its collections cover all aspects of theatre history up to the present day and include original documents, photographs, artwork and artefacts.  Significant archive collections include London Old Vic, Bristol Old Vic and the world-renowned Raymond Mander & Joe Mitchenson Collection.  Research visitors include a wide range of people from local students to international academic scholars, family historians to the public who come to see the small, regularly changing exhibitions.

The Theatre Collection is based at 21 Park Row, Bristol BS1 5LT.  Further details can be found online or by contacting Jo Elsworth, Theatre Collection 0117 3315086

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