Stage Struck

(This article first appeared in Farmers Weekly, 6th February, 1987, and originally bought to my attention by June and Frank Bennison).

In 1940 the quiet village of Little Wolford, Warwickshire, suffered a dramatic invasion. More than 24 students and staff from London's Old Vic Theatre School took over the large Cotswold stone house at Manor Farm and built a theatre in the barn. The only traces that remain of their two-year occupation are graffiti in the attics and "stage door" painted on the door to the barn loft.

I grew up at Manor Farm - my parents Frank and June Bennison still live there - and the graffiti was part of the attic scenery. It was not until I left home that I became curious about the Old Vic story and began to search for archives to explain it.

The Old Vic Theatre (the company no longer exists) suggested the Victoria & Albert Museum's theatre collection, but the archivist could find no reference to Little Wolford, even in the official history of the Old Vic. The theatre collection at Bristol also drew a blank. Then I managed to trace two former students, director Adrian Cairns and actress Joy Friendly. They visited their old training ground and were amazed to find the graffiti still in place and the landscape as unspoilt as ever.

Adrian, now a director of the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, auditioned for his place at the school on the set of Gielgud's Tempest. He says he won his scholarship more because of his age and sex than because of his talent.

At the beginning of the war the London theatres were closed down. Theatre administrators and teachers predicted a gloomy future unless training continued. The Old Vic began to take on younger male students "to complete their training before they were called up for military service".

Despite efforts to recruit more boys, when Adrian, Joy and their fellow students arrived at Little Wolford there were 15 girls and only nine boys. Joy recalls that this led to much bickering about boyfriends. The farmer, Rad Cox, lived alone, and moved out of the house into the harness room, which has no facilities except an open fireplace, and measures only about 5 by 10ft.

The students slept on camp-beds, which were always collapsing, and lived out of their suitcases. Students and staff shared one indoor lavatory, a mahogany throne in a room they christened "the psychological pink". One bath between 26 people led to stratagems such as opting for second-hand bath water, or occasional forays to the George Hotel in Shipston for baths.

Most of the rooms were given names. The largest attic room, where the boys slept, was "Cheap Chelsea", which still has its name painted on the gable-end wall below the masks of comedy and tragedy. As the boys' numbers dwindled they moved into a smaller attic - "Bloomsbury" or "Cheaper Chelsea" - and Cheap Chelsea was used for rehearsals.

Three staff lived in and taught acting, music, voice production, movement and dance. John Moody, the principal, had a house in nearby Great Wolford. Wilfred Waiters, a famous Old Vic actor of the time, frequently came to lecture. His son Richard attended the school.

The village is close to Oxford and Stratford, and staff came from the theatres there to teach make-up, stage management, fencing and acrobatics. The lawns of Manor Farm sometimes received more illustrious visitors. Alec Guinness and Tyrone Guthrie watched the students rehearsing. Adrian remembers Guthrie's tactful comment on his rendering of Orlando from As You Like It: "Well, Adrian, you made it your own."

Although facilities were limited, the school had access to the Old Vic's wardrobe, which was stored in an attic. When the Old Vic was bombed, John Moody (injured while fire-watching there) rescued as much equipment as he could from the shell of the theatre, and was able to use it to build the "mock theatre" on the loft staging of the Manor Farm barn.

The work schedule was not over-demanding and both students remember abundant free time. Classes were from 10-12 and 2-5, with an hour before lunch set aside for riding (a nominal three shillings (15p) a week extra) or walking. The students ran the house - chopping wood, fetching coal and preparing meals. The fees were 8 guineas (£8.40) a month for tuition and a further 8 guineas a month for board. Petrol was rationed and the students hitch-hiked, walked or cycled everywhere.

When Adrian took his bed out onto the roof-well on hot summer nights he could hear the Wellington bombers setting out on raids from RAF Moreton-in-Marsh, four miles away. Joy remembers watching Coventry burning 30 miles across country.

In summer dance and movement classes were held on the lawns. And performances were given to villages, schools and troops in the area.

Two Shakespeare productions were performed in the open air in beautiful settings. Joy played the part of Portia in The Merchant of Venice at Burford Priory. Adrian has mixed memories of taking "As You Like It" to the Elizabethan Manor House at Chastleton. Making his first entrance on the lines "run, run Orlando" he ran in, tripped over a log and fell flat on his face.

The school ceased to exist at Little Wolford after 1942 but, as both Joy and Adrian had completed their studies by then, they don't know why it closed. Little Wolford returned to normal and remains practically unchanged. Only the graffiti at Manor Farm testify to its former, exotic links with the Old Vic.

Judy Steele