In the 1970s Margaret Henry (1938–2014) founded the Actors Theatre in Richmond. With husband Ray O’Donnell, she produced plays that had been neglected by the bigger companies. PETER STEPHENSON JONES recalls those early years.

One of many places I studied acting over the years was St. Martins Theatre in South Yarra, Melbourne, with the wonderfully dignified and majestic Jeff Warren. Jeff had come to Australia from Broadway to star as the King in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. He was a fine actor, and as a teacher he commanded the class room as much as he did the stage.

I can still hear him saying ‘On the stage you must speak in such a way that you can be heard in every part of the theatre.’ I was in awe of Jeff.

MH banner

Another teacher at St. Martins was Margaret Henry. Margaret also had a strong presence. She clearly knew her stuff and the classes were fun and well conducted. She mainly did improvisations.

Margaret was born in 1938, and even as a child Margaret had a passion for theatre, especially for dance. She first studied highland dancing and progressed onto ballet and tap. Margaret’s father would often carry her on his shoulders walking through the paddocks to attend her dance classes. Her background in dance, remarkably, led her to run her own school of dance in Bendigo when she was 13 years of age!

She had two brothers, Tommy and Lionel, who she was totally devoted to. Her father had died when Margaret was quite young.

Realising that she would not fulfil her dreams staying in Bendigo she moved to Melbourne. She was devoted to her mother and her brothers so the family moved together. For a while she taught at the Arthur Murray School of Dance and completed a course at the National Theatre. The directors of the National were so impressed with Margaret that they offered her a teaching position.

Jennifer Ryan was a student and actress who often worked with Margaret. I asked Jennifer about her memories:

‘A number of performers at the Actors Theatre (and its Children's Theatre predecessors) were all students in the late 1960s at the National Theatre Drama School in Toorak Road, South Yarra, under the direction of Helen Franklyn. They included, Margaret, my sister Patricia Ryan, Diane Clark, Nina Russo, Barbara Crawford, Margaret Younger, Sue Nobes and Bill Baker. This was before Margaret started teaching drama and was only running her dance school while studying drama at the National.’

Later Margaret would move on to teach at St. Martins. It was at St. Martins where a student enrolled by the name of Ray O’Donnell. Ray had wanted to do stunt work and was advised to study acting at St. Martins. It did not take long for Ray and Margaret to connect. It was clear there was a real chemistry between them. Ray became a solid, reliable actor.

One could easily write a book about Margaret’s fascinating life. She taught at several places. My memories of Margaret are of those wonderful days at her Actors Theatre and school, which was her greatest achievement. Eventually Margaret found an old factory at 196 Church Street, Richmond near the Town Hall.

When Margaret and Ray moved to that new venue in Richmond several of her students from St. Martins and the National Theatre came along too! Her students loved her and it was not until they got older that they were able to call her Margaret. Mostly she was called ‘Miss’!

So now we raise the curtain on the:


The first production was Peter Terson’s popular play Zigger Zagger opening as part of the first season in 1973. It is a play about football; indeed, it is a football opera and the cast are like a Greek chorus. It was a perfect choice for Margaret because there were parts for many of her younger students who had moved with Margaret to this new venue.

The Actors Theatre auditorium was an open space and the advantage of this was that productions could be played in the round, a proscenium, an avenue stage, and a kind of thrust stage.

Here is the first season of The Actors Theatre:

Butterflies Are Free was a hit in Melbourne at the PlayBox. It starred Miriam Karlin who was a popular British actress. Karlin was a frequent visitor to Australia, and she starred in this production with Wendy Hughes, and with Sean Scully as the blind boy Don Baker.

It was a great choice for The Actors Theatre. Unfortunately, there were some problems. The actor playing the lead, the blind boy Donny, dropped out and the part of the mother was proving difficult to cast. Esme to the rescue!

This great actress Esme Melville was only too pleased to step into the role.

She was wonderful! Esme was a true stalwart of theatre and she was loved by so many actors. She was a fine mentor to many young performers whom she loved to offer advice and support. Also in the cast was Hunter Keble Johnston as Don Baker, Suzanne Nobes, and David Price as Ralph.

When Margaret’s production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown opened it was a sure-fire hit. It was a perfect choice for The Actors Theatre. No set to speak of, a small cast, and a pianist. It was first done in 1967 with a lovely score by Clark Gesner. It was based on the wonderful characters created by the cartoonist Charles M. Schultz in his famous comic strip Peanuts.

Every song is a delight and the final song, ‘Happiness’, is so lovely you left the theatre singing it. The cast were perfect and each actor had their special moment. It was headed by Graeme Ricker who gave an absolutely charming performance as Charlie Brown. Audiences loved it and it scored great reviews. Some exclaimed it was even better than the Broadway production!

Margaret loved kids and she loved doing Pantomimes for children. She actually wrote several of her own. Pantos gave many of her younger talents a chance to really strut their stuff. One actress who shone in panto (indeed in every play she did) was Jennifer Ryan. Jennifer scored a huge hit in Puss in Boots. Jennifer performed in many shows with Margaret and was a wonderfully versatile performer.

Jennifer had another wonderful gift. If you were a new kid on the block and had just joined the company, Jennifer made you very welcome. I think Margaret was aware of this. Margaret was a nice lady but could be rather austere, even aloof. I think it may have been because she was rather shy. It was great to have Jennifer around!

It is very difficult to keep a count of all the wonderful actors who appeared at The Actors Theatre and some who gave performances, under Margaret’s direction, that were, quite simply, unforgettable.

Picture8Robert MenziesRobert Menzies appeared in a few plays with Margaret but the one that stood out for me was Happy Birthday Wanda June. In 1973 this was a really impressive piece of theatre. Also in the cast were Gail Evans, Doug Bennett, Michael Quin, Michael Creany, David Price, Ray O’Donnell, Roslyn Anderson, and Suzanne Carol. It was a solid and impressive cast with excellent reviews, and especially so for Quinn and Menzies.

Happy Birthday Wanda June was a brave play to do.

It was written by Kurt Vonnegut who wrote the masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five. It was a wonderful production.

Three Tales of Erin was also a part of this season. In the cast joining Robert Menzies were Jennifer Ryan, Graeme Rickerby and Marilyn Vernon.

Marilyn Vernon was another student of Margaret’s who followed her to The Actors Theatre. Marilyn was another fine actress who appeared in a few productions with the company. Tales of Erin actually had three parts and it gave Margaret a chance to cast several members of The Actors Theatre. Marilyn went on and performed in film and television.

Marilyn Vernon (Larsen) was excellent in the James Saunders’ play A Scent of Flowers. It is best described as a memory play as a girl reflects on her life. Marilyn performed with Bruce Willie, Doug Bennet, David Keystone and Glen Testro.

Over the years Margaret had collected quite a few costumes and props and she was a very good seamstress. I often saw her with a needle and thread sewing up a costume. Ray and his brother Ken were great assets to the theatre. Margaret knew she needed them and made full use of their skills. When you heard hammering you could be certain it was Ray and Ken working on a set or repairing something in the theatre.

The theatre had a dressing area, Margaret’s office, an auditorium and decent sized foyer, toilets upstairs and a lighting box. The lighting was really quite primitive.

Of course, Ray was not just a carpenter and an actor he was also used, at times, as a teacher. He did a pretty good job too!

I did a few classes with him and there was one exercise I absolutely loved. He asked every actor for a sentence. These sentences were not to be related in any way. They were random. We all wrote the sentences down. Sometimes Ray might change them very slightly, mainly because generally they needed to be in the present tense.

Here are some examples:

  1. It is raining
  2. I have a pain in my
  3. The dog ran outside
  4. I can see a duck wearing a
  5. I can fix that with a

There would be up to twenty sentences. Then we would add three or four questions:

Can you touch your nose with your tongue?

Do you believe in fairies?

What’s the time Mr. Wolf?

Is it nearly Christmas?

Now we were divided into groups of three or four and we had to write a script only using these sentences and questions. Absolutely no other sentences or extra words! You could repeat a sentence but nothing more. It also had to make sense. Some actors decided to set it in a mental hospital and just speak incoherent sentences in order, but this was deemed a total cop-out. By doing this there was no thinking involved. The purpose was to construct a script. I loved this exercise and so did my students.

Here’s an example:

PETER: (looks out window) It is raining outside. I can see a duck wearing a hat!

JENNY: (sarcastically) Do you believe in fairies? What’s the time Mr. Wolf? Is it nearly Christmas? I have a pain in the tummy.

PETER: I can fix that with a hammer

… and so on.

The exercise taught the importance of action. If you were just standing delivering lines it meant nothing. With action it actually made sense. It was also a very good exercise in communication. If you are clear on the motivation the seemingly impossible lines can be assembled in such a way it became coherent.

Ray also conducted rehearsals for a performance which was ‘group devised’. This kind of project while being very valuable, can be a formidable task. The students need to be imaginative and have good group dynamics. They also need a positive energy and independence. Students need to work as a group, offer ideas and work on devising a play. I remember Ray came up with the theme of phones. While most of us settled in and worked together well there were two students who brought the team down. It is very easy to kill inspiration. One of these girls screamed at Ray ‘Why can’t we have a script!’ Ray held up a pen. ‘Look at this, (indicating the pen) THIS IS YOUR SCRIPT!’

I have learned over the years that when doing group devised work a rule of thumb should be ‘never reject an idea unless you have an alternative suggestion’.

Margaret liked to give people a go! This did not just mean new actors (and there were plenty of them) but also new directors and playwrights.

One writer was Tim Baldwin. Tim was fascinated with the Union Movement and wrote a play called The Organiser. I loved this production not just because I got to play the lead but because I learned so much. Tim had written a good play but it needed work. That’s not so unusual, plays overseas are often tried out and rewritten before they hit Broadway or the West End . We rarely have that luxury in Australia.

I played the Union Organiser. The play dealt with a union takeover led by a union organiser whose loyalties are divided between his workers and his own ambitions. The workers become helpless pawns in a game while there is a battle of wits between the organiser and the pompous Minister for Labour, played by Ray O’Donnell. I really enjoyed playing McTrusty the union organiser. There was some good writing. Tim Baldwin actually worked for a union.

There was one line which brought the house down every night. I am in bed with my wife Doris (beautifully played by Judy Hood) and McTrusty is worried and cannot sleep. He taps his sleeping wife. ‘Hey Doris, Doris.’

She wakes up. ‘Not again you randy bugger. I’m shagged out!’ At every performance the audience roared.

Yet although it had funny lines the play still needed help. Margaret came up with the idea of turning it into a Tivoli-style panto! Added to Tim’ s play were a Fairy (Michelle Mason) and a Demon (superbly played by Glen Testro). Other cast members included Brian Granrott, Anne Marie Wiles, Jenny Ryan, and a good ensemble.

It did not stop there. Margaret added a few musical numbers. For example, ‘You can’t get me, I’m part of the Union’. The show may have been different from what Tim had envisioned but once he saw it, he did not seem to mind.

Another thing Margaret came up with was playing the opening of the second act of The Organiser in the foyer. The audience were not expecting it. While they gathered around in the foyer during interval drinking their coffee Ray, Brian Granrott and I entered milling around audience members delivering our lines! It worked beautifully.

While Margaret gave emerging playwrights an opportunity to showcase their work, she knew I was very interested in directing. She offered me and others a chance to direct, but what a challenge! I doubt many young directors are handed Oedipus Rex as their first production.

Picture10Mark MitchellI think I had wonderfully imaginative ideas, but I was inexperienced as a director. I had plenty of bluff but above all I had a wonderfully talented cast to work with. I do not think I was as good a director as I thought I was, but because of the feedback from the actors we did present a good Oedipus. Bill Fox, David Wilson, and Elizabeth Twining were in the cast. Then there was an actor who was absolutely brilliant. I adored him and he became and remains one of my dearest friends. There are very few actors like Mark Mitchell. I found him wonderfully encouraging and supportive at a time in my life when I needed it. As a man I have never met anyone with such a love and knowledge of language, a beautiful writer, and a wicked sense of humour (like me). He had a presence on stage which was a joy to watch.

Margaret did not give me much feedback. She seemed to want me to find my own way. I feel I needed advice, and Mark and the cast gave me plenty of advice. It was wonderful how this cast put their trust in a director learning the ropes.

Picture11Mark and Peter in Death WatchOedipus got several school bookings. They might not have liked my interpretation because in my production there was much movement and Tiresias was played as an evil genius. Not sure how well it worked, but no one complained. Nearly everything went well except for one performance! We had two little girls playing the children. In one scene the little girls on stage were obviously nervous. One poor kid pissed herself. I don't mean a little piddle; it was one of those piddles that last a long, long time. The flood gates opened up and Greece was flooded. The audience was very polite. There was nothing to do and the performance continued.

Later I got the chance to perform with Mark Mitchell in Genet’s Deathwatch. We performed in the round. The other actor was Bruce Willie. There is much beautiful imagery and poetry in the play like references to lilacs in a dead girl’s hair. I was told to play Maurice as cat-like and seductive. I was cute and slim back then and I loved being rather slutty. I used to walk past Mark, flick my hair and say ‘you nauseate me’. Mark and Bruce were amazing. Things went wrong, such as in one performance a cup which was referred to, was not set on stage. Instead of saying ‘that cup there ‘, it became something like ‘remember that cup that was there yesterday’. I was thumped and bashed around quite a lot in that production. One night Mark had to grab me and lift me up. I am embarrassed to say two packets of peppermint Lifesavers and a cigarette lighter dropped out of my pocket. There was no way we could cover it. Lesson … when acting, empty your bloody pockets.

The reviews were good and I enjoyed it but I must say that in my opinion Genet is more fun to act than to watch.

Every actor likes to reminisce about stories and past events, things that either went wrong on stage or nearly did. One night during the run of Deathwatch poor Bruce Willey turned up looking ill. We had no under studies and Bruce was a complete pro believing the show must go on. He had come down with food poisoning. He was terrified he may have to leave the stage. We came up with a plan. If Green Eyes (Bruce) had to leave the stage he would yell ‘GUARD, GUARD’ and Ray O’Donnell would come onto the stage and drag Bruce off. It made no sense but fortunately Bruce got through the performance. In a way it was a pity because I had no worries at all. Mark with his beautiful sense of language would simply ad lib beautifully.

Picture12Jan PalachMargaret Henry sometimes faced controversy. There was Palach with Ian Suddards and Gerard Hiscock. It was a brave production. Jan Palach was a Czech student of History and Political Economics in Prague. To protest the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia he set himself on fire. Self-immolation!

In the production there was a scene where Gerard Hiscock as a Priest had had to recite The Lord’s Prayer while doing a striptease. It was totally relevant and a very mild strip. Well, all hell broke loose! Margaret was dumbfounded by the controversy. Papers declared ‘Priest Strips!’ Great headlines. Church leaders were furious. Margaret even appeared on television explaining it was totally relevant.

Margaret brilliantly seized the moment! The ads for Palach declared ‘Priest Strips—Press Irate, Boy Suicides, Nothing Said’.

Palach was a superb production and did well. The problem was that many school bookings cancelled because of the much-publicised strip scene.

Another play that caused controversy was a play by John Dalton called Swap. Wife-swapping was a popular social experiment in the seventies. Directed by Doug Bennet it was actually a good production. There was more to Swap than wife-swapping, but it did have a nude scene. A huge bed was centre stage and the cast at one point had to bounce on the bed naked!

Margaret drew the line at nudity. I can remember the arguments about nudity. In the end the cast wore body stockings giving the appearance of nudity. Still, it received publicity which is never a bad thing.

Margaret frequently wrote her shows. She wrote some really impressive pantos but for me one of her great talents was writing about an author. She would create a biographical play about the writer and tell the story of the author’s life through the lives of their characters. One play I did was a play based on the Brontës. I played Heathcliff and a variety of male characters, with Barbara Crawford, Margaret and Melita Jurišić as the three Brontës. It was called Images.

Melita Jurišić was a regular performer at The Actors Theatre. She played in Schweik in the Second World War by Brecht. Also in the cast was Kevin Summers and a guest star was Monte Miller. Monte was one of this country’s most respected veteran script writers. He loved acting and really wanted do some Brecht.

Her first play at The Actors Theatre was Brian Friel’s Lovers, followed by performances in Don Juan, Jack the Ripper, Only An Orphan Girl, The Roundsman, Gigi and Fat King Melon. Melita is a lovely lady and fine performer. She also toured in one of The Actors Theatre’s most successful productions, The Adventures of a Bear Called Paddington.

I cannot write about The Actors Theatre without mentioning the late Moira Claux. Moira appeared in a few shows but the one most remembered was her performance in the lead in The Killing of Sister George. It was a fine performance and deserved a longer season. I wish Margaret had allowed me to use her more, especially in Oedipus Rex, which she had understudied.

Moira’s George was a true survivor and a larger-than-life personality. Like Moira! If you know the play you will know that an actress, June, plays the role of Sister George for a BBC series. Ratings are declining so they kill George off. The cruel management offer the actress the part of a cow in a children’s show. Normally we see a pathetic George alone on the stage and as she moos tearfully the curtain comes down. Not in this production.

Picture15Moira ClauxMoira's Sister George ‘moos’ defiantly, even proudly. I asked Moira why she chose to play the ending this way. I have never forgotten her answer. She said that she loved the spirit of George and that she wanted her to end on a new beginning. Moira said ‘If I’m going to be a cow I will be the best bloody cow ever seen on television!’

Moira was a remarkable woman. She was the daughter of Keiber Claux who was a leading anarchist and the founder of Australia’s first nudist club. Moira was a nudist and like her father saw nothing wrong with nudity. Controversy was always part of Moira’s life. She was a free spirit. She was a dancer and that free spirit was evident when she danced. She was clearly influenced by Isadora Duncan.

When we went for drinks together, I would drink coffee or, more likely, in those days, a dry martini, and Moira would drink her herbal tea with the honey she always carried with her. She told me of the days she was known as the ‘cat girl’ and danced in clubs and theatres all around the world, including the Tivoli. She tried so hard to break into film and television. She got parts in Mad Max and some television. She celebrated freedom and she mostly wore kaftans. Today some would describe this free-spirited lady as an Earth Mother. Not everyone appreciated her eccentricity, and warmth and candour with the exception of Mark and me. Frankly, I miss her.

When I first read The Sport of My Mad Mother by Anne Jellicoe, I did not like it, or more precisely, I did not get it. She had written The Knack. The Knack is a masterpiece. Mad Mother is a most unusual play. Indeed, it was more of a worry when I read that in 1958, when it opened at the Royal Court, London, the production was booed. The audience did not get it even though it had a stellar cast including Wendy Craig and Paul Bailey. I wondered what on earth Barbara Crawford, who was to direct it, and Margaret were thinking. Margaret was never afraid of taking risks. She chose plays other companies would not touch. She clearly believed the play would work and Barbara Crawford loved the play. I found Barbara to be a good director. Later, audiences liked the play and it clearly has its supporters.

Once rehearsals started, I enjoyed it. We had a good solid cast headed by Tony Mack MA who was marvellous. The play is all about ritual and chants, and once we got the idea of where we were going with it, I had great fun.

Audiences were divided. Some loved it and some said there was a lot of energy and talent wasted on a play that did not deserve it. I played a teddy boy called Fak. Yes of course we had fun with that name. The play even has rap numbers (sort of) at a time rap was unknown.

It is funny how a line from a play will always challenge you. It can be funny or just awful. This line was bathetic and awful. Yet strangely it was black and funny too. I could not say it without corpsing (getting uncontrollable giggling). I could not look at the others without laughing. It’s horrible when this happens.

Here’s the line:

Gwen…. Where’s Cone? (another character in the play)

Fak…. Dead. He bashed himself to death with a brick.

Yes, that is the line! The audience were meant to laugh but not the actor. I decided the only way I could say it without laughing was to really understate it. It worked but got an even bigger laugh from the audience. At least the actors no longer giggled.

Ray O’Donnell had a perfect training-ground with Margaret and her Actors Theatre. He became a wonderful actor. I think Margaret and Ray tried to keep their own relationship discreet in those days but I think we all knew they were, as we say, an item.

When they were together there was a delightful playfulness. Ray could be cheeky and get away with things none of us could ever get away with. He was intensely loyal to Margaret. If any one said anything slightly negative about her, he would snap! Ray was not the kind of man to upset, if you trod on his toes or said anything critical of The Actors Theatre or Margaret, he would bark like a pit bull. Lovely man, but we learned to tread cautiously.

They were in many ways an unlikely pair. Margaret was always well groomed and a classy lady. She was a lady of contradictions. Conservative but a lady with humanity. She loved gay people for example. With Ray we saw a new side to her. I remember Ray, like many of us at the time, went on the Israeli Army Diet. This was a real fad. You were to eat nothing but apples for two days, then cheese, then chicken, then salad. The theory was that you could not stand another apple so you ate nothing! Everyone was doing it. Ray could be angry at times and he was even more edgy on this diet. Margaret brought in some cakes one day, she was a great cook and as we scoffed down her yummy cakes poor Ray munched on a celery stick. Margaret looked at Ray saying ‘How are you Bugs.?’ She then did a perfect impression of a rabbit!

I had met Margaret’s mother a few times and while we all saw Margaret and Ray as a perfect match, her mum never thought that Ray was good enough for her daughter.

Margaret Henry eventually married Ray and she became Margaret O’Donnell. She ruled her kingdom with poise and dignity. I loved the fact she was brave in her choices of plays. While some may have been critical of her for not picking safe plays, I loved the fact she presented plays rarely seen by Australian audiences.

As a director she preferred to give notes. I was used to William Bates who would interrupt constantly. He would even demonstrate! He would not let you get away with anything. Neither would Margaret, but she had a very different approach. She let you ‘play’. This means let ‘you work your way through the role’. Her notes were clear and thorough. Personally, I wanted more direction because I needed it. If you were a very experienced actor her method was great. I got more used to her process as I went on. Margaret gave us all much encouragement.

Margaret, like most directors, was nervous before a show. She always put on a brave front for her actors. I was always nervous if my mother was in the audience and Margaret was the same. Often if friends are in the audience you will be more nervous. The most nervous I ever saw her was one night when Irene Mitchell of St. Martins Theatre fame was in the audience. Margaret knew Irene well and she was a lovely lady but you could see Margaret was very nervous. I cannot recall the show but fortunately Irene was full of praise for the performance.

Margaret loved performing and often stepped into shows. You often saw her excellent dance skills. She was a good actress, although she did have an annoying habit of not looking at you during a scene. She seemed to be counting the number of people in the audience. Most actors mentioned it, but never to her.

Alias Charles Dickens was my favourite production. Margaret had a great talent when it came to devising a play celebrating the life of an author. She did it with the Brontës with Images but the Dickens tribute was brilliant. The Dickens characters were used to present Dickens’ life. Dickens was played beautifully by Doug Bennet. Nearly all The Actors Theatre ‘family’ were cast. I got to play a few characters; my favourite was Fagin. Each actor had his or her special moment. A new actress appeared and she was fabulous. Kerrie Armstrong was a lovely lady who went on to many exciting projects. This production was also beautiful to look at. The final scene with all the characters on stage creating a tableau was visually stunning. And Margaret Younger, who followed Margaret from the National Theatre, was excellent in every role she played. She was great in Alias Charles Dickens.

A few companies expressed an interest in producing Alias Charles Dickens including one from Germany. I believe Margaret made a mistake in not taking up the offer. It was a masterful piece of research and writing.

I have only discussed a few of the productions. Others that come to mind are Exiles by James Joyce, The American Dream, Hippolytus, Don Juan by Moliere, Machiavelli’s Mandragora, Interview (a one-act play from America Hurrah), The Winter's Tale, Woyzeck, The Roundsman, Marat, Veronica’s Room, The Man Who Changed Places, Talking to A Stranger, Brian Friel’s Lovers, Why Bournemouth, The Missing Link, Harlequinade, a version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and, as they say, several more. There were many children’s plays, of which several were written by Margaret.

The musical Jack the Ripper was great fun to do. It had been successful in London. With a catchy score by Ron Pember and other lyrics by Denis Demarne. It was a musical reconstruction of the infamous Jack the Ripper murders in London in 1888. It was presented through the ‘eyes’ of Whitechapel music hall. Songs were used and comments were acted out by characters of the time. There were so many intriguing theories about the Ripper murders. Even Queen Victoria got a mention which I loved playing. Playing Victoria was a joy and the song I got was such fun. It was probably not very politically correct but I loved it:

‘A wicked wayward bunch of girls who sell themselves for cash

Are being pursued by a maniac who gives them a right old bash

He rips the tarts to pieces

And rapes them one by one

And it really must stop and I really can’t see

Why they should have all the fun.’

The production was performed by several Actors Theatre actors including Ray and Margaret and a few newcomers as well. We all got to play a couple of characters. The play was extremely clever and well written with many red herrings. While we may never know ‘who dunnit?’ the possibilities remain fascinating. I got a fun solo in the show. My character called Dan, singing ‘The Rat-Catchers Daughter’ but my favourite was certainly Queen Victoria. I learned that when performing in drag the possibilities of creatively using a long feather are endless. Funny in all my years of acting I, never got to play a romantic lead, but if an old queen was needed, I was the only actor considered.

It was revived again and was once again successful. Someone should revive it again. It is a lovely show.

Exiles by James Joyce was excellent and starred Ian Suddards. Ian was a beautiful actor from England who appeared in a few Actors Theatre productions. He brought dignity and style to everything he did. I loved watching Ian on stage. This fine production was directed by John Gauci. John was a veteran television director acclaimed for such productions as I Can Jump Puddles, Sugar and Spice, Pugwall and quite a few episodes of Neighbours. John’s wife Louise was in Exiles as well as Ray O’Donnell. Although John was an established television producer he clearly loved live theatre. He even did the lighting for Margaret’s production of The Winter’s Tale.

When researching Alias Charles Dickens Margaret discovered a melodrama by Dickens, which he wrote in 1837. Its full title was Is She His Wife? Or Something Singular: a comic ‘burletta’ in one act. It is quite risqué and quite short only about thirty minutes. It is actually, even though it is short, and it was written by Dickens, not a very good play. It is mostly read rather than performed. I think it was too short so we had to ‘fill’ it out.

Now let me tell this as I remember it. Moira Claux was in it, Michelle Banks Smith and Leigh Grover. Margaret had known me well enough to know my love of revue. There was a great show performed at the Comedy Theatre with Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards. It was called Big Bad Mouse. The actual play was a pretty awful. The problem with the play was that it was not funny, so using Edwards and Sykes, they suddenly started sending the play up, stopping the play and suddenly playing sketches which had nothing to do with the play. Every now and then they returned to the play. It worked brilliantly. From what was a bad play Edwards and Sykes turned it into comedy gold!

A huge, huge hit!

Margaret allowed me the same thing. I never knew what I was going to do. Margaret and Ray joined in too! Margaret then saw the show could work.

She turned the play into a revue called What’s a Nice Crowd Like you doing at a show like This? Ray even hung a swing up onto the ceiling rafters so that I could swing in the aisle singing ‘I Can Fly’ from Peter Pan. For some odd reason I was dressed in a Superman costume! We turned Dickens’ farce into a Tivoli style romp!

What’s a nice crowd needed songs. We all wrote the lyrics.

‘What’s a nice crowd like you

Doing at a show like this?

Well the show’s a mess

But it’s got some good bits

We’ve even arranged

To write our own crits

What’ a nice crowd like you

Doing at a show like this.’

I obviously got a drag number. There was a critic around at the time who was particularly vicious. I won’t use her name but I called her Sally Spanner. She always pushed her politics.

‘Hi diddle-de-dee

A critics life for me

It’s fun to be Viscous and mean

Knocking shows I’ve not even seen

I’ve even been called a drama queen

A critics life for me

Hi diddle-dee-doe

I love to knock a show

I love to be cruel and unkind

I will kick them all up the behind

I have a political axe to grind

A critics life for me ‘

The most successful show, if not artistically then most certainly financially, was The Adventures of a Bear Called Paddington. The Paddington Bear show had catchy songs and was a huge hit.

I loved performing with people such as Melita Jurišić, Ian Broadbent and Kevin Summers. The cast often changed because Paddington ran for over two years. It started off being played at the Theatre on Saturday matinees and school holidays. We even performed it at the Myer Music Bowl. Audiences could not get enough of Paddington and it eventially toured schools around Victoria.

Thanks to Jennifer Ryan there is a very, very rare picture of the old factory Margaret and Ray turned into a theatre. The building remains. Last time I saw it, it was a wine cellar.

The rent at The Actors Theatre, a prime location in Richmond, was expensive and after several years it was time to move.

Margaret and Ray’s story did not stop there and they started a whole new chapter in their lives in Drouin, a town in West Gippsland, 90 kilometres east of Melbourne. They searched for a new venue and found a rundown old butter factory. They bought it! It surprised everyone but true to form Ray and his brother, and no doubt Margaret with her negotiating skills, turned it into a school and theatre. There is a whole history of her days in Drouin. I will leave that to others who were there. The old Drouin Butter Factory Arts complex was a magnificent undertaking.

The Actors Theatre was the dream of a remarkable, complex and gifted woman. At times she could be frustrating and dogmatic. Most creative people, I believe, are.

A kind woman who was devoted to her students and the man she loved and her family. She never had children but loved kids. I can still recall her serving the kids ice creams with hundreds and thousands at party bookings for the pantos, and of course, Paddington.

She put back into the community in many ways such as presenting plays at prisons such as Pentridge and Fairlea.

After Ray died it was a difficult time in her life but Ray’s brother Ken promised Ray that he would look after her, which he did. Time took its toll and Margaret’s memory started to fade and she was admitted to Amberlee Aged Care where she died in 11 August 2014. Ken cared for her until she died.

Two days before Margaret died Ken organised a birthday party for her. Even though her memory had failed her, her eyes lit up especially when her beloved brother arrived.

So many actors reading this will recall Margaret with much admiration. Some may not have known much about her extraordinary life and I hope this will let people know something about those glorious days at The Actors Theatre!


I think it is pity that I have found so few pictures and photos. Newspaper articles and the like were not well preserved.

I am sorry the quality of the pics is not perfect but at least we have them. My gratitude to Jennifer Ryan for her invaluable help, resource material, pictures, encouragement, and memory; Melita Jurišić for news articles and her memories; Marilyn Larsen for your support pictures and memories; Mark Orford for proof reading and helping me with layout; the brilliant Willem Tetro who helps me with everything especially my computer troubles.