Doreen Donnelly: Actress, producer and fund-raiser for Norwich’s talkng newspaper

Doreen Donnelly.

Doreen Donnelly. - Credit: Archant

Actress, producer and fund-raiser for Norwich's talking newspaper, Doreen Donnelly, has died peacefully at Thomas Tawell House aged 102.

She staged a series of 13 Hello Chatterbox variety shows, which raised tens of thousands of pounds for the talking newspaper for the blind over the years.

In the 1980s, the actress supported the £150,000 appeal launched by the city's mediaeval church of St Gregory's, which had become an arts centre.

In her career, spanning three decades in Norwich, she was well-known as both actress, producer and director of plays from Shakespeare and Chekhov to Rattigan and Jeffrey Archer.

Born in South Wales, Natalie Adela Doreen Donnelly's acting career started when she was only nine years old. Whenever a touring company visited her home in Wales and needed a child, she was 'it.' She trained professionally with Shakespearean actor Edward Dunstan and later often appeared on the stage in Oxford.

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Having married young, and then divorced, she did office work to ensure the wellbeing of her children. When her children were older, she moved to South Africa, where she had family. She returned to the stage as an actor and became a director of a multi-racial theatre group in Durban, which she later described as 'the greatest theatrical experience of my life.'

Family reasons brought her back to Britain and she settled in Unthank Road, Norwich, where her daughter, Elaine Bell, was an assistant librarian at the University of East Anglia.

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As a teenager, she had fallen and severely damaged her spine but made a full recovery. But after returning from South Africa, she became ill again and had a further operation in Norwich. After a third operation, she spent 13 weeks in a plaster bath and then forced herself to learn to walk again. 'I was not going to lie there like a cabbage,' he told the EDP in 1982.

As she could not longer work in theatre, she decided to do some voluntary work – hence her connection with Chatterbox. In 1981, the Theatre Royal was offered to Bob Walker, a former editor of the EDP's sister paper, the Evening News, then editor of Chatterbox, who asked her to help as director and producer.

It had originated from a suggestion by the late Dick Condon, the theatre's former general manager, after he had heard that Chatterbox was in need of funds. 'Have a show here, raise some and get Chatterbox known.'

In the final production on St Valentine's Day 1993, more than 170 performers, spanning six decades, took part, and the compere was Keith Skipper, then with Radio Norfolk.

The series of variety shows had raised more than £20,000 and also established a reputation as a platform for the crème de la crème of amateur talent alongside some professionals. She made extensive tours of the Norwich area to find talent for her show.

She acted for the Maddermarket and also the Great Hall Players in Norwich. In 1992, she directed Beyond Reasonable Doubt just 10 days after surviving a car accident. 'I believed that my theatrical activities were over,' she had said. But always a fighter, she battled her way back to fitness.

Her support for St Gregory's had been inspired during the 1970s by a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar, which had been performed during the mid 1970s. She gave a number of one-woman Dylan Thomas evenings, which were a popular success – not least given her family's roots in south Wales. And even in South Africa, her performances had captivated audiences of all races. 'Being Welsh myself, I suppose I felt that only the Welsh could really understand it. How wrong I was,' she said in 1987.

Mother of David, deceased, she is survived by Christopher and Elaine, five grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

A funeral service will take place at St George's Church, Colegate, Norwich, on Monday, July 1 at 2.30pm.

Michael Pollitt

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