Ann Jellicoe, playwright, director and teacher who defied theatre convention

A rare female voice among the taboo-shattering playwrights emanating from the Royal Court Theatre in the late 1950s and 1960s, Ann Jellicoe was never one to be hidebound by theatrical convention. In 1959, she stated: “The living theatre is a changing theatre and must present the audience with a constant challenge”. She proved this by later becoming a galvanic force in community plays, mainly in the West Country, assembling large-scale promenade productions involving mixed amateur and professional casts of more than 100. Her viewpoint was, “I rather dislike too many ideas people myself. I prefer doers.”

She was born in Middlesbrough, and became a theatregoer at the age of four. Training at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, after graduating in 1947 she became dissatisfied with acting in repertory theatre, and started the Cockpit Theatre Club, with the aim of presenting arena productions, at the Portcullis in Monck Street, Victoria, in 1952. Directing Ibsen, Strindberg and Shakespeare, she recalled: “The first one cost about £17 and gradually rose to somewhere round about £60”. In 1957, her play The Sport Of My Mad Mother won third prize, in a playwriting competition run by The Observer.

Introducing elemental and nationalistic aspects into the world of Teddy Boys, it was staged by the English Theatre Company at the Royal Court the following year, Jellicoe co-directing, in the open-stage method she favoured, with the company’s founder, George Devine. She termed it “a flop d’estime”, adding “it was way before its time … I beat Pinter by about a fortnight.”

Opening at the Cambridge in 1961, The Knack, again reflecting youthful life in an absurdist manner, proved to be Jellicoe’s most durable work. She would only say “no comment“ when asked about Richard Lester’s 1965 film version, retaining only Rita Tushingham from the stage cast and adapted by Charles Wood – although Wood’s The Garden (1982) was later one of her community plays.

Following trips to Italy and Sweden, she developed an interest in translation, adapting The Lady From The Sea (1961) and The Seagull (1964), both at the Queen’s Theatre and both featuring Vanessa Redgrave. She also translated Weber’s Der Freischütz for the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company in 1963. Despite reuniting her with Tushingham, The Giveaway (Garrick, 1969) was a critical and commercial disaster.

After a double bill for children, Jelliplays, at the…

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