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Project: Theatre Roundabout Archive: travelling by stages

1 July 2014

The Theatre Roundabout Archive, together with funding to repackage and catalogue it, was given to the Theatre Collection in 2014.  The archive includes costumes and props as well as photographs, scripts and other documentation. 

Theatre Roundabout, a unique theatre company, formed by Peter Albery with actors Sylvia Read and William Fry in the early 1960s, at a time when small-scale theatre touring was almost unknown.  Although there were occasional Arts Council supported tours of drama, opera and ballet, for large areas of the country there was no easy access to live theatre at all.  Faced with a total lack of guidelines, the company had not only to beat out its own touring circuit through the wilderness but to devise a new form of theatre which could pay its way without financial subsidy.  Sylvia Read and William Fry solved the problem with their two-person shows, working without scenery or change of costume and using narrative and poetry as well as dialogue, often adapting classics into two-handers.

After a warm notice in the Sunday Times in 1961, enquiries came in from all over the country, and in 1964 Theatre Roundabout was incorporated as a non-profit-making charity.  Most early performances were given in churches and their first important patron was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, but they were also sponsored by The British Council, The Scottish Arts Council, The Arts Council of Northern Ireland, The Welsh Arts Council and The Arts Council of Great Britain.

During the 1970s Theatre Roundabout began to present full-sized plays for larger casts, but still, out of almost 4,000 performances, 90% were two-person performances.  Sylvia Read and William Fry toured all over the British Isles, from Shetland to the Channel Islands, and from London theatres to remote halls in Eire, as well as in Western Europe, Kenya, Bermuda and the United States.  When on tour they lived and travelled in a camper van, known as Mercy, purchased in 1983 through the generosity of many charitable trusts and members of their audiences.

The project enabled the cataloguing of over 1100 items, including the photography of all the costumes in the collection to create a visual record and was completed in December 2014. The completion of the project was marked by an exhibition launch event hosted by the VC and attended by supporters and family members.

Theatre Roundabout Vanity Fair image
William Fry and Sylvia Read in Vanity Fair, 1967. Photo: John Vickers

William Fry and Sylvia Read in Vanity Fair, 1967. Photo: John Vickers

Further information

Theatre Roundabout Collection page

Theatre Roundabout: travelling by stages Exhibition

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