Life’s a real cabaret for Ilford’s Vivyan Ellacott
As I enter the study of a theatrical extraordinaire, known for his imaginative musicals, thought-provoking plays and colourful pantomimes spanning almost four decades, I am surrounded by stage nostalgia and books on every show imaginable.
A Richard Burton autobiography rests on a side table, which Vivyan Ellacott tells me he is reading to see if he is mentioned. He is at home in a room dedicated to theatre and opera, particularly Mozart, which is a “passion” and fills an entire wall.
The stage director, who counted Tennessee Williams and Elizabeth Taylor among acquaintances and colleagues, is the first and former manager of the Kenneth More Theatre (KMT) in Ilford, and was at the helm for 36 years.
Vivyan went on to teach drama after he retired and this led him to work in Romania as well as in the UK.
He added: “In Romania, the only way out of poverty is through football or education. I really enjoy teaching there and the enthusiasm of the students makes it easy for me.”
Despite being born on a rural farm in Wales, Vivyan’s involvement in the theatre began as a boy, with free tickets to the Swansea Empire Theatre thanks to his family.
His mother, who ran a grocery shop in the city, would supply the rations to the travelling stars of the latest show.
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Vivyan said: “We got tickets in exchange for eggs. Rations were still strict even after the war and there was always a demand from the theatre.
“During the time I spent in the shop after school, I used to see stars such as George Formby, Gracie Fields and even Laurel and Hardy who appeared at the theatre. “As I got older, I used to be allowed to stand in the wings and watch the latest show,” he added. “When I had seats at the weekend I used to go with my parents and I’d already know all the routines and punchlines.”
Vivyan was determined to perform. “I desperately wanted to be a part of the theatre and they would occasionally use local children which I soon realised always came from the same dance school. So I joined.”
He made his stage debut in panto in 1949. “When my part was taken over by someone else because of the strict time limitations on how long children could perform for, I cried and cried; I felt like it was my part,” he said.
He made a recording of Under Milk Wood as the child’s voice when nine with Burton and met him again while at university in Kingston-upon-Thames where he read English literature. Burton remembered him and the pair also met when Burton was playing Dr Faustus in Oxford with Elizabeth Taylor as Helen of Troy and Vivyan was in stage management.
Vivyan was also at university and involved in a production of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real when he met the playwright. He didn’t know but Williams was in the audience. They got chatting and a friendship evolved over the years, sustained through letter writing.
On leaving university, Vivyan worked as a house manager at the Grand Theatre, Swansea, and Wimbledon Theatre before returning to Wales as a staff producer with the Welsh National Opera.
It was in January 1973 that Vivyan took up the role in Ilford, a town he had never visited before, as an adviser for a new theatre which was being built and where he would end up working until his retirement two years ago.
“After working in a number of theatres I realised how inadequate and badly thought out the back stage areas were, so I had a desire to see a theatre done properly,” he said.
The theatre’s original plan, which would have seen a much bigger project including a concert hall, art gallery and library, was “scrapped”.
He said: “When I was walking down the High Road for the very first time, I was asked to sign a petition against the theatre, which they were knocking down a public lavatory to make way for.
“At first it was a real struggle as the potential users of the theatre didn’t want it, however I found Ilford a very exciting place to be, with enthusiastic young people driving the borough.”
Vivyan only planned to see the KMT through its first two years, but he said it became clear to him how much he “loved the place”.
He said: “In those first couple of years, the Kenneth More became the people’s theatre. We had such talented amateur performers who were extremely enthusiastic.”
The first show performed was The Beggar’s Opera, considered a lucky show, followed by Dames at Sea, which Vivyan also performed in.
“I was never a versatile actor and preferred to direct,” he said. “I was good at playing snooty and slightly camp parts, and as a demon king in pantos.”
During his time, Vivyan directed more than 275 in-house productions, including 35 pantomimes, 28 operas, around 130 musicals and innumerable plays, ranging from Shakespeare to farce.
He said: “At some points I was rehearsing three shows a day. The KMT was not a job it was a lifestyle; I was there from first thing in the morning to the last thing at night because I wanted to be.”
While juggling his main job, Vivyan decided to tour with the musical The Rocky Horror Show, which ran for seven years. “The musical’s huge success gave me a name as a director of rock musicals and my only regret was not being able to take it to the West End.
“Seeing the number of young people who began their career at the KMT go on to star in the biggest theatres in London is what gives me the biggest kick though.”
During his years, Vivyan has seen a number of ups and downs, including the threatened closure and lack of funding. He said: “I went from discussing a new theatre with the council to them taking all the money away almost overnight. The theatre, I believe, is of real value to the borough.
“I find it hard to see the people who lead the community having little care over people’s quality of life and instead just focusing on the practical considerations; they must find a balance.”
When Vivyan retired in September 2010, he said he “felt like it was time to go,” but he hoped he had encouraged people to fulfil their dreams.
“When you see a young performer, who said to me a long time ago, ‘I’m from Hainault, I can’t do Shakespeare’, go on to star at The Globe, it makes me feel tremendously happy,” he added.