Famous names return to the Royal theatre in Northampton

Julian Fellowes at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton
Image caption Julian Fellowes remembers his time at the Royal theatre

The Royal theatre in Northampton was a fertile ground for talent.

Some of the biggest names in show business started their careers there as part of the Northampton Repertory Company which started in 1926 and continued until 1992.

The company was the Royal theatre's in-house group of actors, directors and backstage staff.

It boasts several well known former members including Errol Flynn, Sir Nigel Hawthorne and Freda Jackson.

Some actors who started their careers in Northampton returned to the Royal to speak about their time in the county.

Oscar-winning writer of Gosford Park and creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, came to Northampton in 1973.

When he returned to the theatre he said: "The town and theatre has changed, the auditorium has shrunk, but it's the same essentially, it's a very friendly nice space to be in."

He stayed at the theatre until 1974 where he did shows ranging from The Cherry Orchard to An Inspector Calls and even played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

"I remember one show in which a stage hand had his part cut, it was one of my first lessons in the ruthlessness that is part of the theatre," he added.

The repertory company put on a wide range of shows from Vanity Fair to controversial productions like Equus, which starred Archers' actress Felicity Finch when she was in Northampton in the late 1970s.

Image caption Felicity Finch stayed at Northampton's Repertory Company for eight months

"What was lovely here is that it wasn't just the actors, it was the stage management and the people running the theatre who were all really close," said Ms Finch.

Although like many people who went through the repertory system, she acted at other theatres, Northampton has left a lasting impression on her.

"It's very strange, but also lovely. I won't remember every theatre that I've worked in but this one I can never forget because it's so beautiful," she said.

'Confidence building'

The repertory system often involved rehearsing one show during the day and performing a different one in the evening.

The company would put on a different show either weekly or fortnightly in most cases.

Actor Roger Lloyd Pack, best known for playing Trigger in Only Fools and Horses, went to the Royal theatre in the early 70s.

"It was confidence building, because you had the chance to play a lot of different characters and that's held me in good stead," he said.

He first performed at the theatre in The Shoemaker's Holiday before getting a place in the repertory company.

"Northampton was the one that wrote back, I remember it with great affection, we worked hard but it was fun."

Currently, theatres like Northampton's Royal are known as producing theatres, creating original shows and putting on plays and musicals.

However, they now do this without the in-house company of actors that was the repertory system.

The Royal and Derngate is continuing to build its reputation for some of its productions.

The latest success being End of the Rainbow, which has just been a box office hit in the West End and is about to go to Broadway in America.

The next project is The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which if successful could go on tour across the country.

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