As the 50th Henley Drama Festival approaches, festival director Ann Dayton is well placed to celebrate.
She performed in the very first play of the festival, The sky is covered, played on the first night in May 1972 by the Chiltern Edge Players.
Ann recalls: “My future husband, Peter, was also part of it and we have been married for 49 years this year.”
Set during World War II, the play is about the French Resistance.
Ann says, “It’s a very powerful piece. A lady spent the whole show in a wheelchair and never said a word but won the best actor award. The referee said: “I have never seen acting and reacting like that”.
The festival was founded by Ann’s parents, Doris and John Clive-Spencer, who realized there were many local amateur theater societies in the area.
She says: “They thought, ‘We should all get them together in a competition or something’ and it kind of happened, and then it grew and grew.”
Many Henley names and faces were involved. Ann remembers in particular Cecil Hole, the stage manager Arthur Sharp and his wife Dorothy, who was the treasurer. She also remembers local lawyer and festival director Garth Diamond, “a lovely man”, whose wife Nansi still lives in Friday Street.
Ann, who succeeded him as director, said: “I will never forget his funeral. They didn’t have enough seats in St Mary’s Church.
“We didn’t know how involved he was in other things and it was like everyone was coming out of the woodwork.”
Ann, who is now 83, is still committed to the festival and has been busy preparing for this year. Her “right arm” Andrej Pandadis keeps her up to date with competitors and documentation.
Former mayor and Kenton Theater board member Jeni Wood is the treasurer, while Jill Richardson, 90, a veteran director of the Henley Players, will be the arbiter. Ann says, “Jill is as tough as old boots but lovely with them. You don’t go around it, over it or under it.
Ann herself has high expectations. She cruised to Turkey last year and after watching the onboard entertainment kindly suggested some adjustments to some of the dancers.
For example, she advised a very tall man to buy a pair of black pants at the next stopover because the ones he had been given only reached mid-calf.
Ann says, “The dancers got to know me quite well. They used to come up to me after the show and say, ‘Well, what haven’t we done this time?’ Miss Saigon in the West End and on Broadway.
Ann laughs: “Jamie was giving a talk on Gilbert & Sullivan and how Miss Saigon came about.
“He heard me once or twice and started to sit with me and say, ‘I wish we had more spotters like you. People like you are few and far between. He was invited to our gala evening.
Local actor Simon Williams was also invited to the gala evening and awards ceremony as one of his plays had been performed at a previous festival.
The 2022 festival will feature up to three plays per night, including two on Saturdays. Each piece will last between 20 and 50 minutes.
There will be original pieces alongside works by names such as David Campton and Laura Lomas. Chaos, seen at the Royal National Theatre. A new company for this year is the Limitless Academy of Performing Arts.
Ann says part of the festival’s success is its setting: “A lot of people come because of Kenton, because it’s a real stage, and, of course, it’s from 1805. It’s very old.
“It’s an opportunity for young people to walk on real stages, not a village hall or the school stage, but a real theatre. That’s the appeal of Kenton.
The 50th Henley Drama Festival takes place at the Kenton Theater in Henley from Tuesday May 3 to Friday May 6 at 7.30pm, with the gala evening on Saturday May 7 at 7pm. Tickets cost £10 per night or £6 for under 18s. Call the box office on (01491) 525050 or visit www.kentontheatre.co.uk or www.henleydramafestival.co.uk
• The first Henley Drama Festival took place from 17-20 May 1972 and was organized by the South Oxfordshire branch of the County Drama Association and judged by Tony Butterfield. In the competition were Caversham Park Theatre, Chiltern Edge Players, Didcot Townswomen’s Guild, Henley Link, Henley Amateur Operatic and Dramatic and Society, Henley Players, Progress Theater Student Group, Thame Youth Theatre, Twyford and Ruscombe Theater Group, Wick Theater Company (winners ) and Woodley Players.