What links a voice coach, Frankenstein, a dead poet and Bournemouth summer rep?

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Vernon Thompson at the Shelley Theatre in Bournemouth. Photograph by Hattie Miles

Listening to the steady, well-modulated tones of actor and director Vernon Thompson it’s hard to imagine that he’s ever had a problem with his voice.

Yet Vernon, the creative talent behind the  summer repertory theatre season at Bournemouth’s Shelley Theatre, grew up with a significant stammer. It was so  bad that he spent the first five years of his life receiving speech therapy from a Harley Street specialist. And now he divides his time between producing and directing plays and working as a professional voice coach. 

Preparing for the fourth annual season at the Shelley with the much-loved London Repertory Players Company, Vernon told me: “As a child my stammer was fairly severe and if I’m really tired it’s still there a little bit.”

So why on earth did he choose to become an actor? Vernon smiles: “I always felt that if I was playing someone who didn’t stammer then I wouldn’t stammer either and 99 per cent of the time that’s true. It’s partly psychological so it really does help to bury yourself in the character of someone else but because it is also a muscular and breathing thing it very occasionally slips out. It’s still always there just below the surface.”

As a voice coach this knowledge has been invaluable and Vernon can help with a variety of problems from physical speech disorders to simply helping people to project an enunciate better.

He regular works for Channel 4 News coaching broadcasters including one journalist who needed more gravitas in his on-screen delivery. “He was reporting from war zones and they thought he sounded a bit too jolly.”

And as Vernon The Voice he has also helped a barrister to improve his resonance and phrasing, an Italian actress who wanted to reduce her accent and even a rapper who needed help with articulation.

“Many people come to me believing they have a poor voice but there’s no such thing,” he tells me. “It’s about finding the potential. Everybody’s voice can be developed improved.”

There will  be a fine selection of voices on display when Vernon’s  London Repertory  Players (something of a misnomer as most of them come from right here in Dorset) hit the Shelley stage this August.

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The cast from a 2018 production at the Shelley of JB Priestley’s Dangerous Corner

Vernon has also taken the opportunity to step away just a little from the classic weekly rep fare of whodunnits and murder mysteries. So alongside the inevitable Francis Durbridge (House Guest is the play of choice this time by the way) and the1950s crime thriller Murder Mistaken, he as programmed Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, Noel Coward’s Private Lives and, for the first time in LRP’s short but successful history, a completely contemporary drama, Peter Quilter’s play 4000 Days. It tells of a man who wakes from a coma to discover that 11 years of his memory has been erased. Vernon decided he wanted to stage it after seeing it premiered in London three years ago with Alistair McGowan in the leading role. He’s is confident that Bournemouth audiences will be pleasantly surprised.

“It’s a very good play and of course on this occasion I was actually able to talk with the writer about it which is something I’m not generally able to do.”

The cast for the 2019 season will include a wealth of familiar faces with London Rep Players regulars Barbara Dryhurst, Mark Spalding, Al Wadlan, Victoria Porter, Hepzibah Roe, Claire Fisher, Neil James, Amanda Chennell and Nikki Kelly all returning from last year.

Some, like Al and Southbourne based husband and wife actors Mark and Barbara, have been on board from the very beginning. Plenty of additional talent – now all firm favourites with the Shelley audiences  – has been picked up along the way.

“We have a great cast of actors and virtually everyone from last year is back,” says Vernon. “Only the wonderful Kirsty Cox is missing as she has another acting job but I’m sure she’ll return sometime in the future.” 

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Cast members for 2019 Summer Season at the Shelley Theatre including many familiar faces from previous years

There are some additions too, including Adam Trembath and Jessica Olin. Jessica became close to the company last year when she came to Bournemouth with her actor boyfriend Musa Trevathan.

“She almost became an honorary member of the cast and as she also happens to be a very good actress so it made sense to invite her to appear in a play or two this year,” explained Vernon. Musa was originally lined-up for the 2019 season too but had to pull out for the best of reasons when he was  head-hunted for a film role.

The company has also proved a magnet for home grown talent with eight members this year who are Dorset based. New names joining the crew include locals Charly Danby who is currently studying stage management and technical theatre at Guildford School of Acting and the exotically named Glanville Noye, a longtime stalwart of the local theatre scene.

Summer at the Shelley with the London Rep’ Players

Shelley Manor as it is today with the red brick theatre on the left

The other star of the company is of course the theatre itself. It was originally built by Sir Percy Florence Shelley, son of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and the doomed romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Their restored and redeveloped clifftop mansion- known as Shelley manor –  is now a complex containing a thriving medical centre, a block of luxury flats and the theatre where the Shelley family once entertained their well-connected friends.

5RepShelleyManorBluePlaqueSir Percy Florence and his wife Lady Jane bought the small estate in the mid 19th century hoping to provide a home on the south coast for the then ailing Mary. Sadly Mary died before she could move there.

Her death in 1851 brought closure to a tragic life. For though she was a celebrated author, Mary had endured extraordinarily difficulties. Her mother, the pioneering feminist  Mary Wollstoncraft, had died just days after giving birth to her and when her father, the radical thinker William Godwin, remarried it was to a woman who had little time for her stepdaughter

Mary Shelley

Mary’s elopement at the age of 16 with the dashing young and already-married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley didn’t go down well either. Eyebrows were raised too when the  couple married just two weeks after the poet’s first wife, pregnant and distressed,  drowned herself in the Serpentine. It was a difficult relationship rocked by the suicide of Mary’s half sister, the untimely death in infancy of three of their children and Percy’s often extravagantly thoughtless behaviour.

When Percy Florence was born, healthy and thriving, it seemed that at last there was a reason for happiness but another disaster soon followed – the death of  Percy Bysshe who drowned in Italy aged just 29 when his boat capsized in a storm in the Gulf of Spezia. Young Percy Florence was three-years-old, fatherless and with a grief-stricken mother  battling frail health. Not an auspicious start but his fortunes changed when, on the death of his paternal grandfather in 1844,  he inherited a considerable fortune and also the title of 3rd Baronet of Castle Goring.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Four years later he would  marry Jane Gibson, one of nine illegitimate children of a wealthy Newcastle banker (I suppose those bohemian genes had to find an outlet somewhere).  Jane too had less than robust health and Percy jnr  set about establishing a home by the sea that would benefit both his wife and mother.  The Boscombe house fitted the bill perfectly and it had enough land to create a beautiful clifftop garden.

Sir Percy and Lady Jane would establish themselves as valued members of the community, they were great supporters of the arts and generous hosts.  Notable visitors to their theatre included Robert Louis Stevenson, who became a friend when he lived in Westbourne in the 1880s and the renowned Shakespearean actor Sir Henry Irving. 

Their home, while never enjoyed by Mary Shelley,  did  however provide a temporary home for the charred remains of the heart of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Legend has it that the organ was snatched from the ashes of  the poet’s funeral pyre on the beach at Viareggio by his friend Edward Trelawny who returned it to Mary.

A year after her death the remains were found wrapped in one of Shelley’s poems in Mary’s desk and were then kept at Shelley Manor for many years before being finally buried along with Mary, her son, daughter-in-law and parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft in St Peter’s Churchyard in Bournemouth.

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The Shelley family tomb at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth

The Shelley era in Boscombe ended in 1899 with the death of Lady Jane. Over the past 120 years the old manor was used as everything from a Home Guard HQ to a school, an art college and briefly a Shelley museum.

But gradually it fell into ruin and moves were made to redevelop the site. It was only tireless campaigning from conservationists, desperate to preserve what they saw as a vital part of Bournemouths heritage, that saved it from the wrecking ball. And what could be more fitting than the resurrection of the theatre?

The London Repertory Players season directed and produced by Vernon Thompson, opens on 1st August with Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. The second production will be 4000 days which opens on 8th August followed a week later on 15th August by Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Francis Durbridge’s House Guest opens on 22nd August and the final production of the season, Murder Mistaken, will run from 29th August to 3rd September.

Further information from http://www.shelleytheatre.co.uk

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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