Joanna Lumley: Patron of the Barn Theatre
It is with enormous pride and delight that we announce Joanna Lumley OBE as the new Patron of the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place in Kent, the former home to Victorian actress Dame Ellen Terry.
Like Ellen Terry, Joanna has strong local connections, is a leading actress and human rights activist; both have been recognised by the Honours system for these roles.
" When I was eight years old and staying with friends in Tenterden we were corralled into a pageant of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, which involved much dressing up. I was a rat or a waif, I forget which: but my sister playing a burgher’s wife went to be dressed by Miss Maud Gibson, whose ancient cottage creaked under a sloping roof, filled with fabrics and costumes…. and she was Dame Ellen Terry’s dresser and confidante, and we were touching hands that had touched greatness. "
Joanna follows in the hallowed footsteps of Sir Donald Sinden and Sir John Gielgud. Donald was Patron of the Barn Theatre for 20 years until his death in 2014. He assumed the mantle from Sir John Gielgud (Ellen Terry’s great-nephew) who was the Barn Theatre’s Patron for 50 years. Over the years, many famous actors have trod the boards of our theatre: Sybil Thorndike, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans, Alec Guinness, Rachel Kempson, Paul Schofield, Nigel Hawthorne and Peggy Ashcroft to name but a few. We couldn’t be more delighted to have Joanna’s name linked to this stage and her plaque hanging in the theatre amongst such prestigious names from the theatre world.
" I knew nothing of theatre, having been brought up in the Far East: but we both shivered with the thrill of a Real Actress looking down over us in a ghostly way. Did she cast a spell on me then? I always felt a secret affinity with her: she became ‘mine’ , so much so that when Dame Joan Sutherland’s gorgeous costumes and jewellery came under the hammer I bought three pieces which came from the Terry collection. You see, it is vital to pass things on: her jewels, glancing from neck to neck via Vivien Leigh and the great diva herself, are now in my keeping; and Jennifer Saunders has a necklace too which I gave her, so that from generation to generation some sort of magic brushes off on us, like dust from a butterfly’s wing. "
The Patron's chair
In July 1929, Ellen Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig, opened the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place, holding a memorial performance each year on the anniversary of her mother’s death. She funded this transformation of the 17th century building by promoting sponsorship of the rush-seated chairs, which are still used in the theatre today. The pokerworked names on the chair fronts form a fascinating web of Modernist theatrical, lesbian, artistic and neighbourly networks with suffrage and social causes at its heart.
To celebrate Joanna’s new position as Patron, her name has now been delicately soldered on to the back of the chair of actress Dame May Whitty. Like Ellen and Joanna, May Whitty was an acclaimed actress, playing the nurse in Lawrence Olivier’s production of Romeo and Juliet and receiving two Oscar nominations for film roles. She was also lauded for her charitable work, notably the Three Arts Women’s Employment Fund and the British Women’s Hospitals. She was Chair of the Actresses’ Franchise League, campaigning for women’s right to vote. In 1930, the actors’ trade union, British Actors’ Equity, was formed in her London home. Joanna’s chair now sits amongst many other famous names in the auditorium, tying her to this unique theatrical gem for many years to come.
" And now I have a separate and most precious inheritance: the Patronage of the Barn Theatre, passed down to me from Sir Donald Sinden. I could not be prouder or happier. The world turns round, and here I am sixty-five years later, with that rat (or waif) still inside me, still star-struck at this huge privilege. I am grateful beyond words."
A new decade, a new patron, a new exhibition
Joanna's first undertaking as Patron was unveiling the new costume display at Smallhythe Place, turning 'Much Ado About Nothing' into 'Much Ado About Something'.