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West End Director Frith Banbury Passes Away at 96

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Esteemed British theatre director Frith Banbury (pictured), who enjoyed his West End heyday in the 1950s, has passed away this week. Born on 4 May 1912 in Plymouth, Banbury lived most of his life in London and died on 14 May 2008, just ten days after his 96th birthday.

A West End stalwart through and through, Banbury never worked at the National or Royal Shakespeare Company, and directed only twice at the Royal Court. Nor, like many others, was he lured into film or television. But for many years his productions were a staple on Shaftesbury Avenue and at the Theatre Royal Haymarket where he was an exponent of the “the well-made play” for middle-class audiences. Amongst the writers he championed were Wynyard Browne, Terence Rattigan, Robert Bolt, John Whiting, NC Hunter and Rodney Ackland, whose plays he populated with stars including Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft and Paul Scofield.

Banbury started his career as an actor, studying at RADA, where his contemporaries included Robert Morley, after leaving Oxford. He had a walk-on part in John Gielgud’s 1934 West End Hamlet and served summer seasons in rep in Cornwall. After World War II, during which he was a conscientious objector, he discovered his true metier when he was invited back to RADA to direct a student production.

Banbury’s professional directing debut came with Wynyard Browne’s 1947 play Dark Summer, which opened at the Lyric Hammersmith before transferring to the West End. The production also marked a long and fruitful partnership with the legendary Binkie Beaumont, who ran HM Tennent Ltd, the production company with a stranglehold on the West End.

Over the years, Banbury’s other notable credits included the 1952 premiere of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (currently revived in the West End with Greta Scacchi), NC Hunter’s A Touch of the Sun, John Whiting’s Waters of the Moon, Robert Bolt’s debut play Flowering Cherry, Wynyard Browne’s The Holly and The Ivy, Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (the first play by a black author presented at the Royal Court) and Rodney Ackland’s The Pink Room (which was later renamed Absolute Hell in a revised version staged at the National in 1995, with Judi Dench).

Though Banbury’s influence waned after the passing of the Tennent empire, he continued to work in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The director was last in the West End with a revival of DL Coburn’s 1978 Pulitzer Prize winner The Gin Game, which was at the Savoy Theatre with Dorothy Tutin and Joss Ackland in 1999 (See News, 15 Mar 1999). He directed his final production at the age of 91: a tour of Rodney Ackland’s 1935 psychological thriller The Old Ladies starring Sian Phillips, Rosemary Leach and Angela Thorne (See News, 21 Jul 2003).

Banbury’s career, and many of his achievements and stories, formed the cornerstone of The Lost Summer, a 1995 book by Charles Duff which gives a thorough account of the West End in its post-World War II artistic golden age during the 1940s and early 1950s.

- by Terri Paddock


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