Obituary Adrian Stanley

Adrian Stanley, who has died aged 83, was the director of the Repertory Players in Harare for more than 40 years, bringing popularist, Anglophile culture to more than two generations of largely white audiences. A consummate theatre man, quick-witted with an intimidating sharp tongue, he was to presi

de over a period of massive box office success in the colonial era to one where traditional theatre and musicals now struggle to find their relevance.
Stanley’s most successful period was in the 1960s and 1970s where he managed to secure the first rights outside the UK and US to Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. It premiered to Christian pickets and the multi-racial cast brought extra attention from certain quarters of the settler populace. However, Reps was never to find a political voice in the vein of South African protest theatre. An opera in the vernacular Shona language in the 1970s flopped. There were never direct assaults on the political hegemony, perhaps given that dissenting white voices in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia were few.
The son of a grocer, Adrian Stanley was born in Birkenhead. He attended Rock Ferry High School, where he developed his taste for dramatics. One bitterly cold and wet afternoon he found himself playing fullback in a scratch rugby side, in which his team dominated. For the better half of game, the ball remained at the far end of the field and tedium levels rose fast. Feeling obsolete and getting wetter by the minute, he wandered off the field.
It was the 1960 production of Under the Milkwood for Reps that put Stanley on the path that was to determine the rest of his life. Critics roundly praised the acting and, the professional “polish” Stanley applied, earned him – with minor interruptions – the position of the company’s paid director/producer for the next 40 years.
That year had also seen the society vote 82-6 in favour of all races joining the society and victory in the “Battle of the Toilets”, whereby the municipal authority had attempted to enforce separate ablution facilities. Reps sought the advice of Advocate Macaulay, QC and his opinion demolished the arguments of the Public Work Committee. It was said to read like an extract from Gilbert and Sullivan, as the following passage shows: “How can any member of the public know whether the convenience has been used, at some time, by a member of another race? Once so used the convenience becomes incapable in law of being used by the race it was intended to serve! One illegal use by a member of the wrong race would thus render it incapable in law of being used by any race at all, thus removing it altogether from the awkward problem of human relations.” The council backed down and the problem quietly went away.
Stanley’s tenure at Reps in the 1960s was helped by his supportive chairman, John Keeling, who was to deliver his finest performances under his direction. Stanley’s dramatic productions were often described as being “adventurous” (Macbeth in the desert), but he found his greatest success in cabaret and West End musical theatre, which was not unconnected to his remuneration. While it could be argued he was a big fish in a small pond, visiting players would remark the standards were as professional as they had found anywhere in the world. In rehearsals, Stanley would have no issue with keeping a non-professional cast way past midnight with his most feared statement “Once more, from the top with feeling”.
Adrian Stanley, as depicted by the artist Peter Birch, in September 1972.
The post-Independence period presented more challenges in terms of attracting new audiences. The youth wing, Repteens, cultured a good deal of young black talent, but as has been the case with most Anglophile sporting and cultural institutions in post-colonial Africa, there remained little follow through after high school. A comprehensive answer to the failure is elusive. But abandoned playhouses stretching the African continent owe less to the advent of film and video, than an inability to provide something more relevant and less alien for the majority to embrace.
Increasingly frail in his later years, but with a sharp mind, Stanley died in the 75th year of the establishment of Reps – the society having enjoyed a slight rejuvenation in terms of membership. Stanley had a heart attack while directing what was to be his last production, Music Man, just short of the 630th production in the history of the society.
Adrian Stanley, theatre producer and director. Born September 2 1922. Died August 10 2006

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  1. James Ryan

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