Joanna Lumley becomes patron of Barn Theatre, Smallhythe

Joanna Lumley, OBE, next to her plaque displayed in the Barn Theatre (photo: National Trust/Peter Mo

Joanna Lumley, OBE, next to her plaque displayed in the Barn Theatre (photo: National Trust/Peter Mould) - Credit: Archant

The new Patron of the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe recalls a happy Kentish childhood

Joanna Lumley's Patron chair in the Barn Theatre (photo: National Trust/Peter Mould)

Joanna Lumley's Patron chair in the Barn Theatre (photo: National Trust/Peter Mould) - Credit: Archant

National treasure Joanna Lumley has always felt a special connection with Victorian actress, Dame Ellen Terry. Ever since a childhood visit to the Tenterden home of Ellen Terry’s former dresser, Miss Maud Gibson, in search of costumes for a pageant, she has always retained an innate fascination with her life and work.

So, when the invitation came to become the third Patron of the Barn Theatre in the grounds of Ellen Terry’s home at Smallhythe Place near Tenterden, Joanna accepted with alacrity.

Her local links extend much further than that early, starstruck visit to Miss Gibson. Joanna was born in India, but returned to live in the UK with her family as a young girl, staying at first with friends in the Tenterden area.

“Kent gave my family a home when we first came back to England. My sister and I boarded at Mickledene School in Rolvenden, where we became country children, learning about the turning of the seasons and the wildflower names.

“I have many happy memories of my time growing up in Kent, exploring the beautiful countryside around Rolvenden, Tenterden and Woodchurch.”

Now Joanna is back, taking on a new role as Patron of the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place and unveiling an exciting exhibition of costumes worn by Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving during his 1882 production of Much Ado About Nothing at London’s Lyceum.

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Joanna follows in the hallowed footsteps of former Tenterden resident, Sir Donald Sinden, and Sir John Gielgud, Dame Ellen’s great nephew and a regular performer at the Barn Theatre.

The delightful, albeit rather chilly theatre was established in the grounds of Smallhythe Place by Ellen Terry’s daughter Edy Craig after her mother’s death in 1928. It has since played host to countless live performances, with a programme of 32 separate productions planned for 2020. It was acquired by the National Trust in 1939 and seats 79 people.

Eagle-eyed audience members will spot names carved into the chair backs of luminaries who have been involved in the theatre, including Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Sir Nigel Hawthorne and Sir Cameron Mackintosh. Now, Joanna Lumley, OBE adds her name to the exclusive group with her patronage honoured not only by her own inscribed chair, but also a blue plaque at the entrance.

“I always felt a secret affinity with Ellen Terry,” says Joanna. “When I was eight years old and staying with friends in Tenterden, we were corralled into a pageant of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, which involved much dressing up. I was a rat or a waif, I forget which, but my sister – playing a burger’s wife – went to be dressed up by Miss Maud Gibson, whose ancient cottage creaked under a sloping roof filled with fabrics and costumes… she was Dame Ellen Terry’s dresser and confidante. We were touching hands that had touched greatness.”

Joanna’s first task as Patron has been to unveil a new exhibition of costumes worn by Ellen Terry and her co-star Henry Irving during his famous production of Much Ado. The actress was at the height of her fame, earning the equivalent of £24,000 a week.

She played Beatrice to huge acclaim and helped design her own costumes. The exhibition also features props and memorabilia, including shoes, an original programme and Ellen Terry’s own, annotated script. They are part of a wider collection of more than 250 of her costumes and accessories, now under the care of the National Trust.

Find out more

Smallhythe Place opened to the public for the new season on 4 March, and opens daily (except Mondays and Tuesdays) until 1 November 2020.

For details of spring and summer productions, visit: nationaltrust.org.uk/smallhythe-place

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