Jean Porter – tribute

In Memory of

Jean Porter

04 . 10 . 1926 – 26 . 01 . 2007

Tributes from :

Betty Dawes : carried in the local paper

Jane and Paul Vrettos – Anthony Muzzall – Barrie Bowen & Ray Hopper.

 

February 8 – Shoream Herald – page 20 – tribute

Text header : Tributes paid to theatre company stalwart

Text sub-header : Theatre company mourns death of leading lady Jean

WICK Theatre Company has lost one of its longest-standing members and most influential figures with the death of 81-year-old Jean Porter.

Born in Boston, Lincolnshire, Jean moved to Sussex in the early 1950s and went on to complete her training, taking her Guildhall drama exams at the Florence Moore Studio in Brighton. She used this teaching qualification to further her interest in youth theatre and the development of young talent. She joined Wick Theatre Company – then known as Young Wick – in 1955, making her debut at Southwick’s Barn Theatre as Hulga [sic] in a December show called The Christmas Story.

Jean quickly established herself as a regular on the Barn stage, playing a string of leading rôles to positive reviews. She made her directing debut in October, 1956, with an acclaimed production of Pygmalion, in which she also had to step in to play the lead rôle of Eliza two weeks before the show owing to illness.

Wick press officer Rosemary Bouchy said: “In a neat connection with current-day Wick activity, Jean played the rôle of Joyce Harper in their 1957 production of The Happiest Days of Your Life, a show which Wick is reviving in June to mark the 50th anniversary of the original show.”

Jean’s highlights as a director included Gigi in 1966, My Fair Lady in 1976 and Amadeus in 1991.

Notable acting roles included the title rôle in Queen and the Rebels, Hannah in The Night of the Iguana, Amanda in Private Lives and Judith Bliss in an outrageous production of another Noël Coward piece, Hay Fever.

Mrs. Bouchy said: “Jean acted as an energetic honorary secretary of Wick for many years and had latterly been vice-president.

“She was always happy to offer help and advice when requested. Together with her husband George, she continued to welcome Wick members to her home for social events until ill-health prevented her.”

Jean is survived by George, and her three children, Susanna, Richard and Charles.

 


February 13 : Jane and Paul Vrettos – via email to Wickweb

“I am just writing to say how sorry we are to hear of the deaths of Brian and Jean. We heard about Brian’s death too late to attend his funeral, and sadly we are unable to go to Jean’s funeral today. But our thoughts are very much with both families at this time. Paul and I have happy memories of our days with the Wick Theatre Company, back in the 70s’ and were involved in several plays with both Brian and Jean [Paul backstage, and me on stage]. Please do convey our sympathies to both families at this time.

With Very Best Wishes – Jane and Paul Vrettos”
 


March : Tony Muzzall paid his own tribute, carried in the March 2007 Wick Newsletter.

“I owe Jean Porter and Brian Moulton a great deal. If it had not been for their nurturing and experience I would probably never have become so involved in theatre. I joined Wick Theatre Company at the tender age of fourteen. Jean was directing My Fair Lady. I clearly remember walking into the Methodist Hall and seeing Jean rehearsing the cast. My first impression was that she was too old to play Eliza. It was not until a break in the rehearsal that I discovered she was standing in for the leading lady. Jean immediately took me under her wing and encouraged me to become involved as part of the backstage crew for the show.

Some months later Brian set up a new Young Wick section of the company and through his workshops [aided by Frances and Jean] I learned most of what I know about theatre: backstage skills, set design and construction, direction as well as performance. Both Jean and Brian instilled not only the skills and discipline required of a performer – but also the need to respect and support fellow actors on stage. As my abilities grew, they were always on hand to guide and advise me – becoming close friends. When I first ventured into directing I was lucky enough to have these two people in the leading rôles. They were staunch supporters of ideas I wanted to try.

I would always wait until I had heard what they had to say on my performances in plays before I decided whether I had done a good job. They would always give me and honest crit.- and I loved them for it. If I heard Jean say: “I wouldn’t tell everyone this but I know you will listen…”, I knew the performance had lacked something and the next fifteen minutes would be spent discussing the details. It was always spot on, too. Brian was the same. I had more differences of opinion with Brian but, oddly, I was usually more involved in his productions.

Their legacy lives on – in the skills that they selflessly passed on to many other people. I thank them for taking the time.

One thing Jean always complimented me on was “the way you present your lady” in curtain calls. Brian would be equally complimentary about dance routines I was involved with. Well, Jean, the next time I have the opportunity to “present my lady” it will be in your memory. The next dance routine is for Brian.”
 


March – Wick’s Newsletter – Barrie Bowen wrote on the day of Jean’s Memorial Service

“What a fine celebration of Jean’s life and lovely atmosphere to be a part o today. I appreciated meeting so many old friends who, as the Rev. Julian Albrow [Rev. Albrow conducted the Service at Southwick Methodist Church Tuesday February 13th 2007 at 11.00am] reminded us, are our wider family or communion we all belong to. I wonder did he wholly know how apposite those words were in the context of Jean and her place in Wick? The company lost two members and a past member these past weeks and it has become a time to reflect on the eternal What and Why questions. No doubt many more thoughts will come to us as the days pass. First Brian, an actor of towering stature who not only without exception turned in consistently great performances but but gave us all something to compete with and aspire to, and secondly Jean who would go out of her way to show us how to do it. We say their passing is a great loss and of course it is in the personal sense for all their family and friends. In terms of their contributions to life it is not a loss since their achievements and what they particularly gave to Wick are like bricks and mortar, invaluable legacies that will survive with everyone.

The homestead atmosphere of Wick was first engendered by Molly Penny promoting her concept of a youth club. It was pursued with consummate commitment and selfless dedication by Betty Dawes, and a baton was firmly grasped by Jean who played her part unstintingly in fostering that atmosphere, new talent and hopefuls, and being such an ardent promoter of theatrical perfection. That Wick has survived so well when others have succumbed t multi-media onslaughts is due in no small measure in my view to this multi-site second home these ladies created and we have all at various times shared. A quiet understated aspect of Wick life that is more usually regarded as the social activity side. But it is questionable if that social aspect or indeed the Company’s dramatic rôle would be where it is with such strength and vigour were it not for each and every one being made to feel at home, or that they ‘belong’.

We only get that sense of belonging as we do within the bosom of our personal families where we desire to do and share with parents, siblings and relatives for security, sustenance and mutual support. The love and hospitality these three great ladies have endowed Wick with over the past 59 years is the breast milk that has given it such a strong constitution that has become its Spirit. The open houses of Church Lane, Park Lane, Norman Crescent, and The Green extended to Wick the same strong maternalism their own families have been blessed with. Of course one must also remember the parts played by the paternalists of those residences, namely George Penny, Ralph Dawes and George Porter all of whom have demonstrated exemplary friendship, tolerance and support when I for one am sure there would have been times when they would have liked their sitting rooms and kitchens to themselves just occasionally and more often than was the experience.

I have repeatedly thought the mix of homestead and theatre as concocted by Wick from its Young Wick roots to be a most wholesome path for the young to move from adolescence to adulthood and it is good to se it being perpetuated. It is a social model that ought to be more widely practiced. There are many who have cause to be eternally thankful for the life of Jean for many different reasons, myself included. Although I write as an outsider these days I regard Wick and all it is with great affection and in doing so realise Jean and Wick were inseparable. It was she who thought I should tread the boards and never gave up encouraging me to persevere, as in fairness did others. But it is to Jean for those fledgling steps I must say thank you. We cannot know the path before us in life or the changes in direction we will take but I have no doubt whatsoever had it not been for my time there on and off stage, and only made possible at Jean’s encouragement, I would not have been able to take the course set for me with ay sense of confidence.

The batons in the main have passed to many new talents themselves the recipients and Trustees of the Wick Spirit and although I no longer see it at close quarters I am well able to recognise that all our departed and retired would know it is in excellent safe hands. Not only are you all perpetuating its traditions and nurturing the young but taking it forward to conqueror new challenges as exemplified by the proactive lead New Wick lent to the major Barn improvements. Such is the value of departed members’ legacies and the devotion to service of the remaining founders and long servers also evident in the warmth of everyone today. It is a quality that almost defies definition and cannot be bought by anything other than as Kahlil Gibran suggests in the Prophet … “Work is love made visible”
 

Ray Hopper gave this tribute at Jean’s Memorial Service.

” ‘Good night, Good night, parting is such sweet sorrow’. Appropriate words for today, I hope, and spoken by Jean as a 16 year old Juliet in 1941. This was her first major part, cast by a Lincolnshire gentleman called Willard, after Jean’s frustrating inability to be involved in school drama. Willard was to become her teacher and mentor for the next few years. In my imagination I can hear that distinctive, well-modulated and crisply dictioned voice speaking Juliet’s words, although it probably took several war years of Willard’s coaching before she produced the sound with which we became so familiar. His mentoring was so successful that after the war she was auditioned by George Devine [1910 – 1966] of the Royal Court Theatre, and was actually offered a contract, but she turned it down in order to share her life with a different George – lucky George ……. lucky us!

Amazingly it is 50 years almost to the day since I first met Jean, and shortly afterwards we were both cast in Mary Gedge’s production of The Happiest Days of Your Life. I am sorry that Jean won’t be physically present at our revival of the play this June.

Jean joined the Young Wick Players, as the Wick Theatre Co. was called then, in 1955 and has been fully involved with the company ever since, remaining totally loyal to her chosen company and playing a wide variety of rôles, large and small. I can’t possibly cover her whole Wick career, so I shall concentrate on the period which contained, I think, her greatest work in the 1950s and 60s. We are also fortunate that this period was observed by writers capable of understanding and capturing the essence of her talent.

Her first venture on to the Barn stage was in 1955, in the unremarkable part of Hulda in Molly Penney’s nativity play, but the voice was soon in evidence a few months later in Pink String and Sealing Wax when she was reported as having “A diction clear and pleasant”. The following year found her as Gwendolen in Importance – “Miss Porter’s portrayal of a disdainful Gwendolen was beautifully spoken, with exactly the right note of elegant malice”.

However, she was much more than just a beautiful voice – listen to our old friend Walter Hix, writing as Thespis of the Brighton & Hove Gazette, who watched the 1962 production of The Deep Blue Sea. “Jean Porter threw every ounce of her stage training into the part of Hester, until the atmosphere was thick with pathos. From the opening moments to the final curtain she lived, moved, thought and breathed as Hester Collyer.” With apologies to Barry he went on – “So brilliant was her performance that Barry Bowen might have played throughout in the penumbra of mediocrity”. [Golly!!]. But Barry, of course didn’t, and the point I want to make here is that Jean wouldn’t have wanted him to. As a performer she was as in life – warm. sympathetic, generous-spirited and giving. Whilst always giving of her best, she made us who worked with her rise to new levels of achievement.

February 1965 – The Queen and The Welshman “Jean Porter’s study of a largely unhappy Queen was brilliantly interpreted and invested with a reality which never obscured the troubled heart of the woman beating beneath the rich trappings of the age.” and Thespis again – “With Queen Katherine we were happy, sad, desperate and ill. The quality of Jean Porter’s performance is reflected in the way in which we, of the audience, were able to totally identify with her.”

February 1966 – Semi-Detached. “The really considerable achievement of this production was Jean Porter’s Mrs. Medway. The amount of thought, inventiveness and concentration give to the part could be seen in every gesture, every turn of the head, every adoring glance at her slickly successful self-made husband. It was completely successful.”

To complete this section, March 1967 and Thespis was at Hay Fever. “Jean Porter had a spate of opportunities for comedy, and seized them all. Judith – posing all over the place – can be a bit of bore, and it requires great skill from an actress to make her consistently amusing and strangely credible. I WAS consistently amused and never bored.”

The final aspect of Jean’s talents which I want to mention is her professionalism – always reliable, always punctual, lines always learned on time – and so on. She combined this with her sympathetic and giving nature to be a great teacher, colleague and friend. I think particularly of her of her theatrical partnership with Ian Elliott and Pat Johnson – with whom she studied at Florence Moore’s studio in Hove to gain her Guildhall Certificates. She then used this training to mentor and teach young people – at Wiston School, a Lancing youth club of David Goodger, and individually with people like myself. And of course she occasionally directed ……..

Let’s return to the Autumn of 1956, when she was asked to direct Pygmalion and had her professionalism tested to the full. Halfway through rehearsals her Alfred Doolittle suffered a fractured skull in a motor bike accident, resulting in some cast re-shuffling. then with 2 weeks to go her Eliza Doolittle – Frances Moulton – was taken ill, so Jean took over the part herself. To cap it all just before dress rehearsal it was found that the set didn’t fit a newly-altered Barn stage, needing some emergency re-carpentry. Did this faze Jean? – not b….. likely!! – “Jean Porter has played the part before and her performance was of professional standard. Her transition from street urchin to elegant society lady was totally believable.” The only fault the reviewer had was that insufficient thought had been given to the interval music – I’m not surprised!

November 1966 – Gigi. “The play was directed by Jean Porter, with help from David Creedon, and between them they have produced a rare example of a cast of amateurs who succeed in passing themselves off as professionals…..the title rôle falls to 17-year-old Susanna Porter who, thanks to her considerable acting talent, and the careful grooming for local stardom by her mother – the director – contributed a vivid performance.”

There were many other parts and activities in later life, and when the opportunities for older actresses became scarce, she threw herself into company administration and, right to the end, continued to provide the fabulous hospitality of the Porter household. My mother once threatened to report to the police that I was missing if I spent any more time at Kingston Way!

So let us put aside the difficulties of her last days, and remember the wonderfully talented actress and teacher as she was in her glory days.

As Romeo would have said to her all those years ago – “Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, and peace be thy breast.”

 

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