Keele drama

UKTC, RATT and Ringroad

The University of Keele Theatre Company

UKTC was formed in 1965 by members of the University Drama Group and first participated at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966. From the beginning, they pursued a policy of producing new plays – which were either brand new or just new to the circuit.

"The big event of the late sixties was the Keele Theatre Company, formed specifically so that we could go to the Edinburgh Festival. Every year from 1965 to 1970 we were a feature of the Edinburgh Festival fringe, with a nice little theatre – the YMCA theatre in Randolph Place – and productions throughout the day, so as to try to make enough money to cover out costs. The original instigators were, I think, Bill Proctor and Vicky Ewing. The key figures were Ray Johnson, who directed and ran the whole operation, and Jim Lagden, who business managed it and ran the publicity. At various times leading lights included Linden West, Bill Paterson and Anne Richardson. In addition to a morning show, an afternoon play and an evening play, we ran a late night revue, written and directed by Francis Beckett and John Hartoch."

Francis Beckett (1960)

"There was a great flowering of Keele drama at the end of the sixties, and I was privileged to be a part of it. In 1966 we started to take a theatre at the Edinburgh Festival fringe, producing two plays and a late-night review."

Francis Beckett (1969)

"The Keele company romp through it with the great gusto… supported by some highly inventive business it is a witty, pleasing jeu d’esprit’..."

Review in The Scotsman on 'Hamlet' adapted by Charles Marowitz. Edinburgh Fringe, 1967.

"This year the company is moving from Edinburgh to the Nottingham Festival: the reasons for this are both artistic and financial. Any theatre group which plays the same place year after year is bound to fossilize in its outlook… the main problem at Edinburgh was to maintain a reputation: at Nottingham we will have to establish a new one."

University of Keele Theatre Company statement in 1971

drama 1967 edinburgh "In retrospect how rash we were for the Fringe 1966-1968. A group of unknown student actors from an unknown university and yet we took on a lease of several flats, and the hire of several thousand pounds worth of equipment. We had very little money and no reputation…and yet it all did eventually work, we were an artistic and financial success! We acted, sold tickets, moved set, repaired costumes, acted again, and distributed publicity under the control of Geoff Sims and Jim Lagden. Eventually we ran what Harold Hobson, drama critic of the Sunday Times, called a mini-Festival. There was an early morning review, a matinee show, a mid-morning concert, a lunchtime show, an evening show and a late night revue and we ran a coffee bar with folk music all day and every day."

David Radstone (1968) and Claire Radstone (Woodward) (1969)

Left: KDS at Edinburgh 1967-1968

"I still have one of the Keele can Make You Happy Too envelopes with all its original contents. The envelopes were originally made up for Keele in Edinburgh (KTC at the Festival Fringe) and contained programmes with notes of all the shows, a map showing the Keele show venues, a flyer with the same image of Prince Charles having the crown put on his head which had notes about the 1968 performances, and some other advertising. I had just returned from my year studying in France and went straight up to Edinburgh to join the KTC and help with the backstage bits before the start of term in my final year. One of my jobs was distributing these envelopes to the punters and advertising the Keele shows. The Company performed a morning show made up of a 'miscellany of theatrical pieces', an afternoon show which was a double bill of plays by Gunter Grass, Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo and Flood, and evening show of two more new plays They Only Fade Away by Peter Hawkins and Nebula One by Ian Rolfe, and finally a late night show entitled Heliogabalus, the Hog written by Francis Beckett who also appeared in it at least during the time I was there, joined by other visitors including Stubby Kaye. I seem to remember that the show ended with the Company singing a series of songs related to sex and drugs ('because that is the only way we can get some publicity from the Press') under the title "Smoke Somethign Sinful". Others who were there that year were Pete Sykes, Bill Paterson (now known in the Theatre world as Bill Alexander to distinguish him from the actor of the same name), Ann Richardson, Sue Hall, Tim Fletcher, Moyna Wilkinson, Mac Elsey, Murm Fletcher, Tony Smallwood, Kevin Daly, Ray Johnson, Joe Kelly and Dick Miller (the latter two were US exchange students). The envelope was obviously inspired by Charles's investiture as Prince of Wales that same year. If they were for sale in the Union Shop I can only think that there were so many left over that it was decided to recoup the printing costs by selling them to other students!"

Connie Robertson (1970)

"I was the first Hawthorns Hall Chairman (under the Wardenship of Iolo Roberts and Eileen). I was also a major figure in the Keele Theatre Company which included Francis Beckett, John Hartoch et al, and a wonderful lot we were. We were finalists in the Sunday Times Uni Theatre Competition and I played the lead in Chronicles of Hell by Michel de Ghelderode (Belgian of whom no one heard of before or since). The Final took place at Exeter Uni over Christmas and New Year. I was also in the performances of the African Plays, including Three Suitors, One Husband by Keele student Guillaume Oyono-Mbia. Originally written in French, the plays were translated by Guillaume into English and we premiered Until Further Notice. The Guardian even sent a critic to review the plays; he panned them. I have even found the cutting, dated 1st March 1968. Written by Robert Waterhouse, it comments as follows: "The ballroom of Keele University, crudely converted into theatre-in-the-round, seemed as bad a place as anywhere to kill this vivacious satire on African tribal life". During an evening performance of The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Beaumont and Fletcher, again in 1968, word came through from Manchester that our University Challenge team had won the contest. Jim Denman (1970), who played the lead, seamlessly moved from his lines to say "... and word hath come in from the north that Keele hath won University Challenge, that very merry quiz." Those of us on stage tried hard to remain in character whilst the rest of the Walter Moberly Hall erupted! What a night!"

Julian Comer (1971)

The Ring Road Theatre

"It genuinely saddens me that what was once regarded in its day as an institution and real cultural icon of Keele be so completely forgotten, as irrecoverable as Lyonnesse. I can perhaps fill in just a few gaps in what at the time seemed a distinguished history. Once upon a time, the entrance to Keele was not the new edifice by the Medical School but slightly further on from Newcastle towards the village. This was a driveway that ran in a curve around Barnes Hall (which may not even have been built at that time) then headed in a straight line to the centre of campus on its way to Keele Hall. However, with the arrival of the academic buildings such as the Library, and the new Students' Union building (alleged, in some way, supposedly to resemble a Mississippi steamboat) the road terminated in a small roundabout just in front of the library. The Union building was then still gleaming white) and was quite literally set in the heart of countryside; beyond the ballroom there was no car-park, no science park, possibly only a safari park - literally fields and trees. And very charming it looked too. The University must then have expanded and one significant consequence was an extension to the Union building which overlapped the little roundabout that had previously served as the hub of campus. With that and other building work, the old drive was abandoned (apart from swelling sideways to become the Union car-park) and a new road was built that circumnavigated the existing buildings such as the Chancellor's Building, Biology, Geology and Geography and so on, and also the Union itself. This was, of course, referred to as the Ring Road. I suppose someone came up with the bright idea of having a revue theatre, probably a bit like Footlights and, I assumed, nicked the name, "Ringroad"."

Peter Bird (1982)

"Hmmmm, the Ring Road Theater was founded in honour of someone, I forget whom. It grew out of the torrent of (quite competitive) drama activity circa 1970. It was started I think by Jim Lagden and Anne Williams? But many distinguished Keele theatre people were involved in getting the premises released by the University, doing the rudimentary conversion and making other arrangements. Pete Sykes and Bill Paterson (later known professionally Bill Alexander), John Hartoch (or had he left by then?), Kevin Daly and many others. One of the two Chris Harrisons booked some remarkable bands (remember CMU?). There was a mixture as I recall of short plays, a revue etc with a late-night Sunday emphasis. This was gratefully received by FY students as a displacement activity, meaning that the start of work on the FY essays due at 9 am Monday morning could be successfully delayed even later than when the Union bar shut promptly at 10.30 or 10.00 on Sundays. The hut was originally, I think the Horwood laundry store."

Bernard Martin (1973)

"Kaya Meulenbeld, John Dawson and Andy Downie took over the Sunday night review in 1979. The "GOD" 1980 cast was Andy McWhirter, John Dawson and either Pete Best or Olu Odunsi. In answer to Dave Lee the individual you seek is Frank Dillon, now a Barrister in Liverpool. He mainly, with some help from myself has written four comedy reviews about the legal profession raising many thousands for charity. It is sad that Ringroad is no longer. It was a free space for all, the worst were the funniest. We did a sketch about "Dr Scott of the Health Centre" abandoned in the snow outside Horwood hall. " Doctor... there's a message on the radio." "What does it say?" "Caution, do not remove back.""

Andy Downie (1980)

"I was reminded of my early Ringroad performances the other day while chatting with Paul Spence at an informal, curry-oriented gathering of the old school clan. When Paul mentioned that his extensive energy sector interests include nuclear power, I found myself reciting the Ringroad Windscale poem from memory – the first and last verse simply flowed as if I had read or performed it just the other day. Paul asked if I had a copy of the poem. I said I probably did.... I didn’t write the poem. I’m not sure who did. Possibly Frank Dillon (1983); at least Frank would probably know who wrote it. I’d like to credit it if anyone reading this can let me know the name of the author. That chat with Paul brought back a flood of memories about my sabbatical year summer and my first Ringroad performances."

Ian L Harris (1984) 


"Having journeyed through Inner Space with Carlos Castaneda and been through the Doors of Perception, Heaven and Hell with Aldous Huxley and fed up with aping the words of the Dead, living or otherwise, Keele Drama gave birth to two revolutionary strands in the early seventies. One was Dadaist relying on multi-media absurdist juxtaposition whose prime movers were Owen Kelly and Derek Love. The other led by Peter Sykes and called the Keele Performance Group was far more radical. Heavily influenced by Jerry Rubins' Yippies and the Situationist International we tried to make theatre a transformative experience both for the actor and the audience. Drawing on everyone from Artaud through Stanislavski to Grotowski we used a series of exercises developed by Meyerhold designed to breakdown the character armoury, identified by Reich, that prevent us from being real. As such we ceased to be actors and became Actuals. We later evolved into R.A.T.T. (Ritual and Tribal Theatre) in homage to our perceived roots in ancient ceremony and shamanism. I have sent in a copy of a review in Plays and Players from the Student Drama Festival in Bradford (around 1972). The name of the performance was Fallacy. It had few lines, the most memorable of which was: "Did I come from an orgasmic f*** or what the f*** were they doing with each other". In memory of Peter Sykes and Gill Gill, both of them dead before their time, and of Gary Little."

John Attenborough (1972)

drama-1976-adrian-stern "The action photo (left) on Keele lawn was taken by a Martin somebody. And the event was an amazing party we had after finals and while we were making our film of “Keele Life” we had to include an insane party, didn’t we? So not exactly theatre but cinema. And there never was a print of the film – we showed the editing copy (which my parents threw out when they sold their house). Ring Road Theatre was so named because the hut was on the Ring Road – although we kept the name long after the hut had gone. And Georgiana Gore definitely had something to do with RATT."

Adrian Stern (1976)

drama-1976-adrian-stern-1 "Was it Roger Hough who founded Ring Road Theatre? He certainly had a lot of involvement in it."

Steve Rowson (1978)

"I'm not sure when the original Ringroad Theatre ceased operations but it was resurrected in 1973 by Paul Dalton (1974). As he entered his final year he asked me to take over the organising of it and I did that for two years. It was the only thing going on in the students’ union on Sunday nights so it was quite popular. It consisted of sketches and skits, acoustic music, song and poetry and anything else anyone wanted to do. People sat on the floor with their drinks in plastic glasses in a room at the top of the building, though later we managed to introduce the luxury of chairs. In those days the only way to contact people if you didn’t bump into them was via the pigeonholes in the foyer so there were many notes going back and forth inviting known performers to come along. Eventually, I too faced my final year and I asked Roger Hough (1977), a good pianist and comic act well-liked by the regulars, to take it over and he did, very successfully. I’d like to think it carried on after Roger, maybe someone else knows?"

Steve Tingle (1976)

"By the time I arrived, Ringroad Theatre was running approximately once a week in one of the curiously ill-designed function rooms on the top floor of the Union building. With no stage, no tabs, no regular schedule, few regular performers and no material, some sort of show would kick off that would include sketches, stand-up routines and anything else that could be lifted from the latest rag mag to hit campus from a rival college, along with ribald comments and assorted good-natured abuse, and a generally entertaining time was had by all, especially if one complied with the only entrance requirement, which, I think, was to be outlandishly drunk. As the bar downstairs never stayed open beyond 11:00 (10:30 in winter) back then but the building itself stayed open till midnight, most of those in attendance conformed with this proviso diligently, stocking up like camels at an oasis. Some of it was genuinely superb fun, a gallimaufry of entertainment, and how no-one went on to a subsequent fame and a career at the BBC is a mystery (unless someone did but hasn't owned up.) I finally decided to risk my hand, if not my sanity and my liver, by making my debut with a song, accompanied by myself on guitar, called "The Boring Lecture Blues." I was so paralysed with nerves, I lurched in front of the audience with a pint of bitter in one hand and a large Southern Comfort in the other, spilling some slightly. "At least I'm on a balanced diet," I slurred. When the crowd laughed at this quip, I knew I was home and dry and all went well. I have no idea who might have been running the show in those days; there was a finalist who lived next door to me I think had something to do with it. He achieved a different form of notoriety when, having finished an essay in the small hours, he attempted to smoke the stub of a cigarette he had been saving for this portentous moment, and accidentally set fire to himself. Later on, a chap called Andy Dowie and a Dutch girl who spoke fluent English with an American accent, called Kaya, seemed to have a loose hand on the reigns, along with a couple of other people. This stewardship led to other performing ventures, such as a Woody Allen play God, in the Ballroom at the end of exams, a Finalists' Review, and one or two other odds 'n' sods of comic thespianry and music."

Peter Bird (1982)

"I was away for a year and when I returned the previous luminaries had left. This was always the problem - just as somebody became adept at performing or writing they would do something silly like graduate. This fate, fortunately, had not yet befallen me. Ringroad appeared moribund but not forgotten. A whole bunch of us got together to do one mammoth show to relaunch the Institution. Again I can't remember the names of all those involved - there were quite a few - but three come to mind: Oluseye Odunsi, Alan Jones (composer of a song called "Keele Blues") and Liz Dainty. My apologies to the many others. The show was recorded on audio cassette and to this day I've never dared listen to it. As successful as this show was, (it was absolutely packed out despite running for about three hours) this was not the re-launch we had perhaps hoped for. We'd used up every bit of material, gag and half-idea we had, as well as co-opting in performers from other fields, and we had nothing left. Two of the cast at least were approaching finals, someone else dropped out, and there were rumours of mass nervous break-downs. There wasn't another show, as far as I can recall, at least not one with which I was involved. Sometime later, I happened to be back at Keele, and to my delight, there was a Finalists' Review being performed by a whole new gang of Ringroaders, none of whom I knew at all! I booked a front-row seat and saw one of the funniest shows of my life! Especially the sketch, completely without words, where an exam candidate took out a real camping stove from his jacket and warmed up a tin of beans over his exam paper. I felt the show was in good hands and would, as they say, 'go on.' It breaks my heart to think it's no longer there. Or perhaps it is, but under a different name. There was a rumour that there was also a University around Keele somewhere but the important bit about Life on the Hill was Ringroad."

Peter Bird (1982)

"According to my diary, the Old Gym Theatre or Ringroad Memorial Theatre opened on Sunday 1st February 1970 almost immediately after the Keele Drama Group’s triumphant week at the Manchester Granada Theatre performing the winning entry for the NUS Student Drama Festival Vietrock. I have a Xeroxed ‘Gala Opening’ programme which reads:

  1. Guerrilla Theatre (which was definitely Pete Sykes etc)
  2. Turnip Johnson and the Mint Imperials (who were they, I can’t recall!)
  3. Marye Smith and Michele Edwards (did they do a sketch?)
  4. John Cronin and Warren Colman (don’t know what they did - a sketch too?)
  5. ...and, perhaps, Derek Love

At the Bar: Roger Freeman and Dick Offer and ...your very own ‘Cuddles’ It was signed AW which was definitely Anne Williams. It continued to operate every Sunday night – at 10.45 pm - and had a licence from the Union Bar to serve drinks (beer anyway) after they closed.

A Programme for 22 February 1970 has Jo Hainstock, Guerrilla Theatre, Mike Reynolds and Moyna Wilkinson doing Noel Coward, Derek Love etc, Francis Dobbs and Stuart Gordon, Geoff Webster, Martin sings... plus a Guest Star appearance of Dannie Abse, Jeremy Robson and Vernon Scannell. How did we manage that? At the Bar that night were: Peter Sykes and Roger Freeman. One more programme from that term was a Vaudeville Music Night with Marye Smith and Berni Broome, The Persian War, Michele Edwards and Kirstine, Porter and Ale: Mr Sykes (Peter), Tea and Sticky Bus: Mr Freeman (Roger) and your own your very own Miss Constance Robertson. House Manager was Mr Reynolds (Mike). The Old Gym reopened for business in the summer term on 3 May 1970. This was around the time of the Petrol Bomb mentioned by Gill Gill. I did not attend much at this time because I was in the middle of Finals. There were some interruptions such as the Hollywood Music Festival but the term ended with the Ring Road Festival 20-25 June with Performances at midnight (!) of ‘Hunchback’ – The Iona Theatre Workshop (which later became RAT Theatre or RATT) on 20, 21 & 22 June, and a double bill of new plays written for the Festival. These were Demon by Geoff Ndhala and FATS (The Farmer and The Stork) by Colin Shearman on 23, 24 & 25 June. Tickets cost three shillings for one night and five bob for two nights! I was the Producer/Director for Geoff’s play."

Connie Robertson (1970)

"In 1981-82, John Dawson and I were doing the Ringroad review show on Sunday nights upstairs in the Union bar after closing time. This guy came along a few times and did the soliloquy from Hamlet, but using place names: "Torquay...or not Torquay, that is not Wrexham!" etc. I naturally thought he'd copied it from somewhere, but I reckon now it might have been original work! Does anyone else remember the guy and the soliloquy?"

Dave Lee (1982)