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The star behind the scenes

PUBLISHED: 16:03 06 July 2007 | UPDATED: 15:55 22 October 2010

ANGI KENNEDY

Jill Freud and Company begin their ever-successful summer season next week.

ANGI KENNEDY meets the woman who gives her name, energy and enthusiasm to this Suffolk seaside institution.

The list of reasons why you'll know the name of Lady Jill Freud is almost embarrassingly starry.

Wife of ex-MP and broadcaster Sir Clement Freud who is, of course, the grandson of Sigmund Freud.

Mother of script editor and broadcaster Emma Freud and of PR guru Matthew.

Mother-in-law of Richard Curtis, writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually and The Vicar of Dibley.

Sister-in-law of artist Lucian Freud and aunt to his children, fashion designer Bella Freud and writer Esther Freud.

Even, incidentally, she was the inspiration for CS Lewis to create his extraordinary world of Narnia!

Yet in East Anglia, there is another particular reference attached to her name. Here Lady Freud is known, not so much by association to the many acclaimed members of her remarkable family, but firmly in her own right.

For us she is Jill Freud, the woman who launched the enduring and much-loved theatre company that brings a summer of entertainment to Southwold and Aldeburgh each year.

And although it is her name up there in lights, she is very much the hands-on, hard-working team member who is happy to deflect the limelight on to the rest of the cast and crew.

“I truly believe that you should never ask anyone to do anything you wouldn't do yourself,” she says. “So yes, I've cleaned loos, scrubbed floors and made beds.”

It is a “can do” approach that has spread across the whole company. Without the luxury of a big budget or flashy facilities, everyone gets down to work with the aim of creating a summer season of thoroughly entertaining shows. “The emphasis is entirely on the audience and that shows itself in the choice of plays,” she tells me when we meet up in the functional, little Walberswick house that she makes her home for four months of summer.

Nestling at the bottom of the garden of the gorgeous old Freud family house that now belongs to Emma Freud, this place buzzes with phone calls from actors, agents, producers and so on.

“You can't go on an ego trip as far as choosing the plays goes. If we did, we wouldn't have the audience that we do. We always try to have a good play; the sort of play that people will want to come and see, particularly those on holiday.”

The arrival of Jill Freud and Company marks the start of a frenetic few weeks in Southwold. Actors and backstage workers are found temporary homes around the town for the summer season. A welcome party, hosted by Lady Freud, brings everyone together and makes sure any new faces are quickly assimilated. And then the serious stuff begins.

This is no holiday by the seaside for the cast and team. This is day after day of hard work, long hours, rehearsals and set construction. There are dance routines to be learned, lighting schedules to be devised, all this after the small matter of the theatre being built!

Each summer, St Edmund's Hall on Cumberland Road is transformed into the theatre that will host five different plays, various extra evening events and an array of children's shows. From puppets to poetry, from high drama to music hall, all is here in the mad, manic weeks of the Southwold Theatre summer season.

It is the 24th year of this frenzied routine. Not that it stops when the curtain finally goes down at the end of the 10-week run.

For Lady Freud and the inner circle of the company, the end-of-season holiday to Portugal is as much about brainstorming and script-reading for next summer as it is recovering from this year's!

“We chill out with 30 odd scripts,” she explains. “We lay by the pool, hand out scripts, pass them round to each other, and by the time we come back at the end of September we have the bones of the next summer's season.”

This year, they have come up with an eclectic selection of plays, from the classic thriller Arsenic and Old Lace - “We have a very good cast for this and I think it is going to be a lot of fun” - to Climbing The Wall, specially written for the company and starring Lady Freud and Doreen Mantle (Jean Warboys in One Foot in the Grave).

Although famous names often crop up in the cast list, Lady Freud is quick to stress that audiences come to see the company as a whole.

“There are some hugely experienced, extremely talented actors.

“We can very rarely fit more than four new people into the acting company each year because we have such a database of people who want to come back.”

She was, of course, a West End star herself under the name of Jill Raymond - in the days before marrying then-chef Clement Freud in 1950. No less than C S Lewis paid for her to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art - she was billeted at his home in Oxford during the Blitz.

“He was an extraordinary man. I think I must have had something of a crush on him at the time!” she smiles, as she recalls the writer who used her as the inspiration for Lucy Pevensie, the small girl who walks through the back of a mysterious wardrobe and discovers a lion, a witch and much more in the magical world of Narnia.

After marriage, Jill eased off acting to bring up their family (there are five children and now a host of grandchildren) until Clement was an MP for North-East Cambridgeshire.

“Wisbech Angles Theatre had just opened and they asked me to bring a show, The Hollow Crown,” she remembers.

“I got a booking at Peterborough and at Ely, and then was asked to take it somewhere else. So I ended up putting out three tours during 1980.

“It was at a time when there was so little work for actors and it dawned on me that you didn't have to sit at home waiting for someone to give you a call; you could do these things for yourself.”

The following year came an eight-week tour, “by the third year we were selling out everywhere”.

It was a Christmas show at St Edmund's Hall in Southwold in 1983 that led to Jill being asked if she would consider presenting the summer season in the town the following year.

“I had got to the stage where the family were not needing me every minute of the day, so I said yes.”

From the start, her acting background meant the cast were at the heart of her concern. She understands the practicalities of how to look after people - and knows that if you get this right, good work will follow.

“I know I am doing something right because I am providing decent work for actors and with the attitude that we are there to give the audience a good time and not show off.

“At the height of the season we provide work and accommodation for 45 people. The local part-time and summer volunteers bring us up to 75 people involved in all.”

The company is professional, except for up to 10 young people who help with the box office and the children's shows, as stage management students.

“They are from all over the country and we always get far too many applications for the number of spaces,” she explains.

“They work hard. We put them up and give them pocket money, and they get to do a bit of everything apart from acting. They are usually kids who are passionate about theatre, but do not really know quite what they want to do.

“Everyone else gets paid the same whether they are playing a lead or a minor part, and the technicians all get the same money.

I am very proud of it, but one of the problems is that because my name is up there it is me who gets the focus. But I know what I put into it and I know what everyone else puts in.

“I do put in a lot of drive and the desire to make it happen. I want everyone who works for the company to have fun and be happy as well as to work hard. And if I can send back actors feeling a little more stable, that is a good job done.”

The season also brings in a lot of business to Southwold, with many of the shows sold out well in advance. And as a non-profit-making company, everything is ploughed back into the productions.

Mark Sterling, production manager and director, says it is “an integral part of the summer” at Southwold and, for the past 14 years, at Aldeburgh.

“What is unique about it is that it is very intensive, and it is one of the few repertory theatres that is compacted into just three months,” he points out.

That, of course, makes for some very creative production work. Not only is the mobile theatre built into the hall each summer, but individual sets have to be constructed for the five main plays of the season.

“But it is not about it being easy, it is about it being good,” he laughs. “We try to create more challenges for ourselves each year, improving the theatre and the way we do things.

“And Jill has this knack of getting together a company that gets on with each other because we are all dedicated to it.”

Sidi Scott agrees. As choreographer, actress, and now also chairman of the Friends of East Suffolk Performing Arts, she has been involved with the company since the early days and still loves the whole, crazy summer season.

“I think it is so special because the quality of the productions is of such a good standard. You get extremely high quality in everything from front of house management to the sets, the actors and directors. We have some very good actors coming here and playing wonderful parts, and for the young actors this is a huge thing to have on your CV - it is held in the highest regard.

“Jill is particularly good with them, very generous with her time. She is an amazing woman.”

Tell Jill this, of course, and she replies that she is simply one part of “an amazing team”. And it is a role she loves - even though her advancing years (I am sworn not to mention age!) mean she can at last see a time coming when she would like to reduce her workload.

“I never expected this route for me,” she smiles.

“I thought it would be playing Ophelia! It all happened by accident really. There was a moment when I had to decide if I was going to take a side step somewhat after we married or go on into the West End.

“But I have had more fun and satisfaction this way - and no, not a single regret.”

WHAT'S ON

Jill Freud and Company is at Southwold Theatre from Thursday July 12 to Saturday September 15. Daytime Box Office: The Tourist Centre, 69 High Street, Southwold on 01502 724441 (Mon to Fri 11am-4pm and Saturdays 11am-1pm). Evening Box Office: Southwold Theatre, Cumberland Road, Southwold on 01502 722389 (Mon to Fri 5-9pm and Saturdays 2-9pm). Tickets for evening shows are £7.50 to £15, and for matinees £7 to £9.

t July 12 to 28 - Arsenic and Old Lace

t July 30 to August 11 - Dick Barton, Special Agent

t August 13 to 25 - One For The Pot

t August 27 to September 5 - Climbing The Wall

t September 6 to15 - Private Lives

Sundays at Seven

t July 22 - Poetry, Music and Wine

t August 19 - Hiss and Boo

t September 9 - The Great Roy Hudd (booking from August 1 only)

Children's shows

t July 23 to 28 - The Sea Poppies Mystery

t July 26 - Free Dance East Workshop at Southwold Primary School (next door to the theatre) for six to 12 year-olds, no booking.

t July 31 to August 4 - Crazy Clown Magic

t August 6 to 11 - Captain Carrot, Field Agent

t August 14 to 18 - The Three Pigs puppet show

t August 20 to 25 - A Ladder To The Sky

t August 28 to September 1 - The Story Pot

And at Sutherland House hotel and restaurant, 56 High Street, Southwold, a programme of lunchtime and supper performances will be running in The Garden Gallery.

Lunchtime Jazz on Wednesdays at 1pm from July 25 to August 29

Lunchtime Theatre

t July 20 and 21 - Margaret Rutherford Recalled

t July 27 and 28 - Knickers Have Never Been So Posh

t August 3 and 4 - Confessions of an Everyday Actor

t August 10 and 11 - A Midsummer Night's Dream

t August 17 and 18 - My Dear Howey

t August 24 and 25 - All At Sea

t August 31 and September 1 - Past Lives

Supper Theatre at Seven

t August 5 - A Pleasing Terror

t August 26 - The Marriage of Casanova

If you cannot get to a performance in Southwold, the main shows also play at Aldeburgh Theatre. Daytime Box Office: The Suffolk, 152 High Street, Aldeburgh on 01728 453007 Evening Box Office: Aldeburgh Theatre, Crabbe Street, Aldeburgh on 01728 454022 Tickets for evening shows are £5.50 to £14.40, and for matinees £5 to £9.

t July 31 to August 4 - Arsenic and Old Lace

t August 6 to 11 - One For The Pot

t August 14 to 18 - Dick Barton, Special Agent

t August 21 to 25 - Climbing The Wall

t August 28 to September 1 - Private Lives

Children's shows

t August 1 to 4 - The Sea Poppies Mystery

t August 7 to 11 - Crazy Clown Magic

t August 13 and 15 to 18 - Little Red Chunni

t August 22 to 25 - The Story Pot

t August 27 and 29 to September 1 - A Wheelie Bin Ate My Sister


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