The First 40 Years: 1980

This is part of a series of articles looking at the first 40 years of the Stephen Joseph Theatre (1955 to 1995) from the perspective of the theatre's Archive. The articles were first published in the SJT Circular newsletter.

1980: Robin Herford

by Simon Murgatroyd

In 1976, an actor joined Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre in its final months little knowing the impact he would have on the company and it, in turn, on his life and career.

The actor was Robin Herford and his contribution to the Stephen Joseph Theatre should not be understated.

By 1980, Robin’s commitment and importance to the company was made clear when Alan Ayckbourn appointed him Associate Director; only the second person to have held the position after Mervyn Watson.

Robin had initially joined Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre as an actor in 1976, appearing in six productions at both this venue and then - following the move in October of that year - the Theatre In The Round At Westwood; later the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.

For many people familiar with the SJT’s history, Robin would be probably considered an actor first and foremost. Yet this is not the case. His acting roles were very much concentrated into his first three years with the company but, in 1977, an opportunity arose which would have a profound impact on his career.

“Alan Ayckbourn is always one for encouraging people to do more than one thing. A lot of people in the company at the time were writers or designers as well as actors. I mentioned to him I had directed a little bit at university and he asked me if I would stay for the next season if he offered me a production. So I did.”

This step into directing would - like Alan Ayckbourn before him - slowly come to dominate Robin’s career. His first play as director would be
The Ruffian On The Stair by Joe Orton, a lunchtime show in the Studio space.

“He [Alan] was one of those wonderful influences that encourages you but gives you the space to do it - he’s never spent a single minute in my rehearsal room, although I must have directed 30 or 40 shows while he was in charge of the theatre and I was up there. He told me I could give him a ring if I got into trouble and that was great.”

Having directed three plays in 1979, including his first main-house show with Barefoot In The Park by Neil Simon, Alan made an appealing proposition.

“He asked me to become his associate director. He knew I still wanted to act, so he said I could direct some shows and act in others. Basically he directed 60 percent of the shows, I directed 40 percent. We cast the company together, we commissioned the new plays together, and I learned a bit about how a theatre company operates. It was great. It was hard work. It was a steep learning curve but a very enjoyable one.”

Directing five productions in 1980 and acting in three others, Robin had become an integral part of the company and a prime example of the legacy of Stephen Joseph; who had always encouraged people in the company to develop and experience different sides of the theatre.

That is not to forget Robin’s legacy as an actor though as, between 1976 and 1987, he appeared in 37 different plays and became - to this day - one of the most prolific Ayckbourn actors, appearing in numerous world premieres such as
Joking Apart (1978), Taking Steps (1979) and Woman In Mind (1985).

It is, however, his role in
Intimate Exchanges in 1982, that he is most famous for. This year-long epic, acting alongside the late actress Lavinia Bertram, saw the pair perform 10 roles in a play which had 16 possible variations - totalling more than 16 hours of dialogue. Although he did occasionally act again afterwards, Robin famously noted he’d done enough acting for a lifetime with his experiences of Intimate Exchanges.

Intimate Exchanges went into the West End in 1984, but Robin returned to Scarborough in 1985, a year prior to another offer which would cement his position as a key player in the history of there SJT.

“Alan was asked by Sir Peter Hall, who then ran the National Theatre, if he would go and run a company there for a couple of years. Alan avoids big conversations if he possibly can. We were walking down the platform at Kings Cross together, he was going right at one end and I was going left, and, just as we parted, he said ‘Oh, by the way, Peter’s asked me to run a company at the National for two years, so why don’t you run the com- pany while I’m gone? Bye, see you’. And off he went. So I thought about that and it seemed a crazy opportunity to turn down, so I did it.”

So Robin found himself as Artistic Director of the company while Alan took a two-year sabbatical to the National Theatre between 1986 and 1988; whilst Alan never formally stepped down as Artistic Director, Robin - to all intents and purposes - ran the company for two years.

“It was quite a revelation, really. I don’t think I’m fully cut out to be an artistic director of a theatre, but there were bits of it I really enjoyed. I really enjoyed working with actors, I en- joyed putting a season together, I enjoyed commissioning new work.”

This would result in one of Robin’s key contributions to the SJT and British theatre history in 1987, when he commissioned Stephen Mallatratt to write an adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella,
The Woman In Black.

The play was a huge hit in the Studio, directed by Robin , and - of course - subsequently went onto the West End where it has become one of the longest running shows in British theatre history. Even three decades on, Robin still redirects every change of cast in the West End and has been asked to direct
The Woman In Black around the world (including twice more in Scarborough in 1997 and 2015).

With Alan’s return to the SJT in 1988, Robin took leave of the company - not least be- cause of his commitments to
The Woman In Black - but has still remained connected to the company.

He is one of the few people to have directed an Ayckbourn play in Scarborough - other than Alan - when he fittingly directed the final production at Westwood with
Just Between Ourselves in 1996. He has since directed at this venue several times and, most recently, he joined Alan Ayckbourn’s A Brief History Of Plays celebration last year, performing in scenes from notable Ayckbourn plays - including Intimate Exchanges.

Almost forty years after being appointed Associate Director of the theatre, it seems only fitting to mark Robin’s many important contributions to the company and his place in its history.

Article by and copyright of Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.