In Memoriam: Norman Cunningham

22 March 2017


Norman Cunningham, who died in February at the age of 89, was a member of the original Theatre Centre company. In April 1954 he played Matthew in Brian Way’s modern dress production of The Man Born to be King, by Dorothy L Sayers. The author attended rehearsals and brought Agatha Christie to the first night. All his life Norman treasured his copy of the play, on the flyleaf of which Dorothy Sayers had written: ‘To Matthew, in gratitude and joy.’

The following year he joined Brian’s children’s theatre company, touring London schools with Pinocchio (for juniors) and Grinling Gibbons and the Plague of London. He wrote later that the latter which was performed at secondary schools in ‘avenue arena’ was

very hard work… addition to a large number of costumes we carried three sets of rostrums, two sets of curtains and a quantity of lighting equipment. We did two shows a day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and then had to load the van, move on to the next school and set up, before going home.

All this was combined with playing five different roles, including Dr Burnett and John Evelyn. In Pinocchio he doubled as a policeman and a circus ringmaster. 

In 1956 the company ventured further afield, to Devon and Cornwall. Brian Way had written two new plays. In The Story Tellers, for younger children, Norman was the Toy Maker, who was led by his mirror image into mirror land where the stories (by Grimm and Andersen) were performed.  In Oliver Twist, again staged in avenue arena, he doubled Bill Sykes with the benevolent Mr Brownlow. The last of Brian Way’s children’s theatre plays in which Norman toured was Doctor Dolittle’s Circus. Norman wrote later:

This was something very different because, although there was a script of sorts, a large portion of the play had to be improvised according to the dictates of the children who were recruited at each performance to play the animals …. and who sometimes led the plot in several interesting by-ways. I have to confess that I was never very happy about this play. We had to behave as much like teachers as actors, keeping the participants and audience under control and there were times when I felt that the whole performance had been a failure.

A fellow-member of the company in its early days, and a lifelong friend, was Ray Llewellyn. Ray wrote the following contribution to Norman’s funeral service, held in Llandaff Cathedral on 14 March: ‘Have any of you acted in a field? Well, Norman and I have and for all I remember it may have been in the depth of winter! We just met in Brian Way’s children’s theatre soon after I left drama school about 1953. I have always maintained that if you can act in front of a gang of unruly children in the open air on a cold morning, then the Old Vic is a doddle!’