Tricia Thorns has had theatre in her blood since childhood. She performed in her first pnlay at the age of 4, two years later she was writing plays, making costumes and dragooning cousins into playing ‘bit’ parts. Her mother, who had herself wanted to be an actress and performed in amateur productions, had started a small school where drama and ballet featured in the curriculum in her rambling house in Epsom, just after the Second World War. Tricia’s mother continued as headmistress until she reached the age of 84.
Tricia gained a grammar school place at Rosebery School, Epsom, and it was in a school production on Founder’s Day when she was 11 that she discovered her gift as a comedy character actress. Her part in a one act play, The Ugly Duckling, included a lengthy speech and the howls of laughter from the audience at her comic role, was music to her ears. By the time of her A levels she was desperate to go to RADA but her family persuaded her to go to university and she dutifully went to Nottingham where she read Classics. It was at Nottingham that Tricia started her first theatrical company, performing the works of Harold Pinter with which she has had a life-long love. Her company was set up in opposition to the established university drama society which was casting roles among a small circle of friends. Tricia was determined to be cutting-edge and her first Pinter play was The Lover, a one act play set in suburbia.
By the time she had graduated, she was too late to apply to any of the leading repertory companies for the forthcoming season but she was offered a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for the following year. There was no alternative than to take a gap year in which she took fencing and dancing lessons. An avid reader of ‘Stage Magazine’ she saw an advertisement for an acting assistant-stage manager with John Neville’s Park Theatre Company at the Fortune Theatre in the West End which was presenting a play about the American theatre critic, Dorothy Parker. To her delight she was taken on by Neville but only having a probationary Equity card, her ‘acting’ part of her job description was limited to graceful arm waving in the wings. However the ASM role fully occupied her and she immersed herself in this to such an extent that later on she omitted to mention, until the day before the Saturday matinee that she would not be able to work the following day. “Why is that?”, demanded the director. “I’m getting married tomorrow” replied a nervous Tricia. “Well you had better have the next two performances off “, was the reply. And so it was. Tricia reported for work again on the Monday.
The season ended after six months and Neville quit England for Canada and Tricia was back to temping again, working as a hospital clerk (handling complaints, a task she thoroughly enjoyed), acting as a chef (she loves cooking) and preparing dinner for 200 lorry drivers. She wrote ‘hundreds of letters’ for stage work and finally landed a part for the Derby Playhouse season who were looking for an actress who was blonde, curly and curvy. The part was in the musical ‘Silk’. The year was 1971. The season ran for five months and alternated with farces such as ‘Not now Darling’ by Ray Cooney and dramas like D H Lawrence’s ‘A Collier’s Friday Night’. Rehearsals lasted from 10am-6pm and then it was time to get ready for the evening performance of a completely different show. With youth on her side, Tricia, with her husband Graham Cowley, who was ASM at the Derby Playhouse, and the production manager Judy Gemmell started the Derby Playhouse Studios on top of their main roles in the company. It was all very experimental and the first production was Dear Janet Rosenberg, Dear Mr Kooning with Tricia playing Janet Rosenberg, Graham playing Dear Mr Kooning and Judy Gemmell directing. When the season ended they took the play to the Richmond (Yorkshire) theatre.
Then followed years of rep in regional and touring companies, running through the Aychbourn list of such plays as The Norman Conquests and Ben Travers’ farces. Although farce is Tricia’s forté, no role was refused and Shakespeare, Somerset Maugham and Shaw were taken in her stride. Finally a big break came with the lead part in Ray Cooney’s Run for your Wife at the Duchess Theatre in the West End. Run for your Wife is the West End’s longest running comedy,
Following this nine-month long role there was a three month tour and London run with Jim Cartwight’s ‘Two’, another tour and London run with the lead in Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’ and a UK tour for Max Stafford-Clark’s ‘Out of Joint Company’ with two Restoration plays, ‘Man of Mode’ and ‘The Libertine’ which also played in Moscow and then had a successful run at The Royal Court.
A lengthy spell in numerous television roles happily coincided with the arrival of a daughter and Tricia was spared the grind of touring. As a character actress she was very employable and appeared in A Touch of Frost, Darling Buds of May, Keeping up Appearances, Emmerdale The Bill and numerous others.
It was through James Allen’s Girls School where her daughter was at school, that Tricia first became involved in directing amateur theatre. She assisted the staff in some JAPS productions and found that she could handle large numbers of performers. Towards the end of the 1990’s, with stage roles drying up she reached a low ebb. It was during morning service at St Faith’s Church one day in 1998 that she found herself reading a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury challenging congregations to ask themselves what spiritual contribution they might make towards the forthcoming year 2000. The letter suggested that otherwise there was not going to be anything spiritual celebrated.
Inspired, or transformed, by this challenge, Tricia went home and immediately started to write a long list of possibilities. Her list included adapting Old and New Testament stories to drama, thinking of actors, musicians, orchestras and choirs. She conceived a grand epic, set in churches, halls, but also in unlikely streetspaces where the week leading up to Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection could be portrayed.
She convinced virtually all of the churches in Dulwich to participate, identified the places where the story would be told, and carried out her plan - The Last Supper was in the upstairs room of the Dog in the Village, the Trial of Jesus was in the hall of Melbourne Grove URC, the Crucifixion was in the small park adjoining Sainsbury’s, at Dog Kennel Hill, the Resurrection took place at dawn in St Stephen’s churchyard. It was a monumental effort involving hundreds of people which so inspired those performing (in the main people who had never acted before) that firm friendships were made, and the year well and truly spiritually marked by Passion Play 2000.
The Iraq War of 2003 was the next inspiration for Tricia who was moved by the scenes shown daily on television. She and her husband Graham decided to look at soldiers’ stories from The First World War and undertook research at the British Library. It was a virtually unploughed furrow. There was a huge list of plays written during that war, some banned by the War Office because they showed a left-wing tolerance and the Russian Revolution had put the authorities on the defensive. With the help of the National Library of Scotland they were able to whittle the list down to 12 possibilities. Two were written by Miles Malleson, now remembered as an actor who portrayed doddery old vicars, but as a young man something of a firebrand.
Miles Malleson’s plays Black ‘ell and D Company were staged on a 3 night run at the Soho Theatre. On the first night there was an audience of 50, the second 100 and the last night was house-full. The two plays were joined by a third, Brigade Exchange and the triple bill staged at the Pleasance Theatre where it enjoyed a four week run. Another WW1 play, Red Night was put on at the Finborough.
What followed was rather different. Tricia was given a privately published book of World War 1 letters. The letters were written daily from the outbreak of the war by a young soldier, and lasted until he was killed in action. Those to his mother were humorous; intending to ‘cheer her up’ by reciting ‘funny’ incidents in the trenches and of the men under his command. Those to his father changed in tone, from proud nationalism to weary disgust. The difference in the two types of letters fascinated Tricia and she adapted them into a moving one-man play, ‘My Real War 1914 -‘. It had two successful UK tours and two runs in London, including one at the Trafalgar Studios.
She then had great success with the acclaimed production of London Wall, which had an initial season at the Finborough Theatre and went on to run at the much larger St James’ Theatre. Last month, to coincide with the forthcoming anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1, Tricia directed another well received wartime smorgasbord - a revival of three short plays entitled What the Women Did at the Southwark Playhouse.
And so what will Tricia do next? Ever one for a challenge she is directing a play about the Stonewall riots in New York in the Sixties, entitled ‘Hard Rain,’ at the brand new theatre space at Vauxhall called ‘Above the Stag’, which runs until April 5th. She is also devising and directing an evening of Shakespeare for his Baptismal Anniversary at St Paul’s Church Covent Garden (The Actors’ Church).
Tricia Thorns is fortunate to be supported by her husband, Graham Cowley, the producer for the ‘Out of Joint Company’, the British and international touring theatre company based in London which specialises in the commissioning and production of new writing. His is the quiet but efficient presence behind so many of Tricia’s productions.