Curtain falls on theatre career

HE'S pulled the strings behind the scenes for more than half a century; but Colin May is now taking a well-earned back row seat as the curtains close on a memorable career in British theatre.

HE'S pulled the strings behind the scenes for more than half a century; but Colin May is now taking a well-earned back row seat as the curtains close on a memorable career in British theatre.

On Friday, having spent 51 years in the wings, Colin, 66, from Braunton, stepped down as programme director at North Devon Theatres.

The role was the culmination of a lifetime's experience running and working in theatres, a journey that began as a 15-year-old schoolboy in London's West End.

Inspired by his father to take a part-time evening job as a theatre technician at the Victoria Palace Theatre in 1959, one of Colin's first experiences was working on a production of the Crazy Gang stage show, Young At Heart. Colin, who was nicknamed "Little Adam" due to his resemblance to Adam Faith, was tasked with moving props and scenery; but the buzz of rubbing shoulders with the capital's theatrical movers and shakers struck an instant chord with the teenager, who soon decided to give up his day job as a Fleet Street messenger boy.

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Working in various West End theatres throughout the swinging sixties and psychedelic seventies, his experiences with high profile stars such as Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Adam Faith, Barbara Windsor and Cliff Richard often involved as many flashlights as they did spotlights.

In particular, it was Colin's likeness to Adam Faith that led to one memorable stage door escapade.

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"Adam was one of a number of stars performing at a midnight matinee charity show we put on in aid of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and was a big name then," said Colin. "There was some concern as to how he'd get out of the theatre so someone decided that I wear his leather jacket. I left via the stage door and amazingly, it allowed him to slip out of the main exit unnoticed."

In 1978, after nearly 20 years in the West End, Colin became the technical director of Croydon's Fairfield Halls, where he would put on some 1,000 shows a year during a busy 21 years.

It was while he was in Croydon that he met future North Devon Theatres' chief executive Alan Giddings, who became joint artistic director of Fairfield's theatre and concert hall in 1984.

The two colleagues shared the same office and became friends, staying in contact when Alan left the theatre some years later. In 1999, when Alan embarked on a new project to turn around the fortunes of two ailing North Devon theatres, he telephoned his old friend to ask if he'd like to help out.

"The Queen's Theatre and the Landmark Theatre were both in serious financial difficulties and Alan was brought in as a consultant," said Colin, who moved to the area to become programme director in 2000.

"Audiences were declining at the Queen's, while the Landmark had only just opened and was losing a lot of money.

"We developed a whole new programme, increased attendances and managed to write off the debt so that we could begin a new phase of running the theatres debt-free, something I'm pleased to say still continues today.

"I'm proud of the way we've developed the programme in all forms, music, drama, ballet, dance, comedy and, of course, pantomime, which proves to be very successful every year."

During his time in North Devon, Colin has used his theatreland contacts to help bring a number of big stars to the region including Jasper Carrot, Lee Evans, Eddie Izzard, Jack Dee; a number of 60s musical acts; and big West End musicals including Joseph, Blood Brothers and Cabaret. He has also been hugely influential in helping to establish a popular classical music series, as well as an education programme that saw some 23,000 attendances by young people last year.

Colin has also been involved with the development of North Devon Festival, which began as 10 days in June in 1999 and now runs for the whole month.

"I started on the second festival and have seen it extend and expand with a whole range of artists," he said.

"Artists love coming to North Devon because the audiences are so warm and friendly and that's why the region has such a good touring list now. We always take the time to meet and greet the performers and I believe there are probably only one or two other theatres around the country that do that."

Although he has never performed on stage himself, Colin has worked in every department there is, including lighting, sound, wardrobe, fly, follow spot and even the box office.

"It's been a long but very enjoyable 51-year journey and I've loved every moment of it," he said.

"Theatre is a people business and no two days are the same; it's all about creating ideas and shows. It's a very creative industry and I'm really proud to have worked with some very talented people including artists, producers, directors and technicians.

"I'd like to say thank-you to the people of North Devon for supporting local theatre and I hope they continue to do so.

"Arts are always an easy target when it comes to cutting funding and due to the current economic situation there are difficult times ahead. I hope that people in North Devon will continue to support their local theatres and help to keep them vibrant."

Paying tribute to his friend and former colleague, North Devon Theatres' chief executive Alan Giddings, said: "Colin's knowledge of the theatre is extraordinary and we will certainly miss him.

"The theatre business has changed so much in many ways over the years and Colin bridges the old days of West End star celebrity with the contemporary changes that have taken place.

"He has always embraced the changes cheerfully and has been a great contributor to North Devon Theatres during the last nine years. He's dependable, reliable and like a good bassist in a jazz band, you sort of know that while all the mayhem is happening on stage, Colin is there holding everything together. He's always on beat and knows exactly what's supposed to happen."

While Colin admits he will never truly be able to walk away completely from the theatre, he is looking forward to retirement with wife Anne. "I'll still have some input in the theatre but my long suffering wife has had to put up with me working long evenings for some time so it's going to be really nice to be able to spend more time together.

"In this business you have to be dedicated to what you're doing but it has its rewards and my greatest reward has always been seeing audiences coming in and enjoying theatre.

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