The Strolling Playhouse
The Strolling Playhouse
Sometimes a place, group or a person can change your life. Judy Lewthwaite and the Strolling Playhouse seemed to provide all three for the young people of Dartmouth for a generation.She was a remarkable person, with an ability to inspire children who was described as ‘The Pied Piper of Dartmouth’.
She took a young boy with imagination to spare under her wing and inspired him to write his own plays and work with the young members of the company – he is now a nationally recognised playwright and he credits Judy as his main inspiration.
What was her secret? How could she have spent nearly 20 years working with children of all ages, getting them to dress up in silly costumes, dance, act and sing onstage in performances that sometimes defied logic and narrative continuity?
“She was totally eccentric in many ways, a wonderful influence on me and all of us and she fed us horrible weak squash with rich tea biscuits,” said former Strolling Playhouse member Emilie Heard. “The Playhouse was the biggest single influence on who I am now.”
Emilie joined the company in 1985 when she was 10 years old: Judy was 66 at this point and had taken on a protégé in the shape of a young man called Stephen Roberts.
“Stephen was only 14 but he was such an incredible person to be around,” Emilie said. “By the time I joined he was writing most of the plays and running a lot of the workshops. In many ways he terrified us but also inspired us completely. He had an amazing relationship with Judy and she clearly inspired him in the same way he inspired us.”
The group rehearsed in a rambling house that was as fun as it was practical.
“Judy lived in an amazing house on Kingston Lane which was our rehearsal base. She built us a shed in the back garden to practise in and she had an enormous costume store upstairs that had the most incredible collection of clothes I have ever seen. I remember wearing this gorgeous Edwardian wedding dress for a play and not wanting to give it back!”
The Playhouse was an escape, an inspiration and a source of huge pride for the children who took part. Judy’s imagination was fired by the thoughts and opinions of the children she worked with.
“She was the only adult I saw from the ages of 10 to 19 who gave the impression they thought anything I or my friends had to say was relevant and interesting,” said Emilie. “She thought we had a right to speak and would listen to us always. She was like this benevolent grandma who gave the impression she liked us all very much.”
Emilie said Judy had special talent that helped build young people’s confidence.
“She was brilliant with the quieter members of the company,” she said. “We loved performing, but those who wanted to be involved, but were scared to, had a special friend in Judy. She would spend time with them and help them come out of themselves.”
The company, dominated by Judy and Stephen, put on three shows a year: two plays, often written by Stephen, and the winter panto, which Judy would bring together. She also would perform with the children doing her famous ‘Live’ Punch and Judy Show at public events.
“The Punch and Judy Show was great fun,” said Emilie. “Judy would make us walk around town in costume to advertise it. As you can imagine for teenagers, it was horrendously embarrassing. However, it showed how incredibly persuasive she could be, because we never refused. This was a group of young teenagers walking round town dressed as crocodiles, policemen and all those characters! Really it was the last thing any of us wanted to do, but we loved the Playhouse and Judy so much we did it.
“The pantomimes were remarkable performances, many of the Dartmouth Players came to join us for it and we had a fantastic time. The piano player was lovely but he was a bit deaf so he never heard his cues, it was brilliant,” Emilie laughs.
The company became a close-knit band of maturing young performers, led by Stephen under the benevolent eye of Judy. She encouraged him to develop his ideas, to trust his instincts and bring together plays of remarkable ambition for such a young company.
“Stephen was great,” said Emilie. “We would often spend a day or more in workshops on the play and on our characters – we had to research them and bring ideas to rehearsals. I was amazed when I joined other groups to find out that they used these things called ‘scripts’. Stephen would expect you to know the story and know your character – he would then rehearse and if a scene wasn’t working he would change the lines. He expected you to know why the change had been made and remember the new lines. The amazing thing is, we did. We loved the playhouse so much, with such a passion, that we gave everything to it.”
However, nothing lasts forever: the Strolling Playhouse is no more. Judy passed away in 2007 aged 88.
Stephen Roberts went to RADA, changed his name to Stephen Beresford and became first an actor and then a playwright. His first full-length play, the Last of the Haussmans, was performed at the National Theatre with Julie Walters in the main role: a woman called Judy who was partly inspired by the woman who inspired him.
I ask Emilie what she thinks is the legacy of the Playhouse.
“Every one of us loved it so much and it made a massive impression on us all,” she said. “It challenged us to learn and be inspired about what we were doing. We are still all great friends and all have a love of drama, literature, history and art. It was hysterical fun and it was such a natural, organic process. To get that kind of reaction out of children you have to inspire them and teach them – Stephen and Judy did that.”
First Published August 2013 By The Dart