Sarah – to the Manor born

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DIRECTOR Sarah Branston’s first appearance on the Pendley Shakespeare Festival stage was at the tender age of seven in Much Ado About Nothing – the show she directs this year.

But her family ties to the annual theatrical event and the place itself go back much further.

Legend has it that Sarah’s maternal great grandfather worked in service at Pendley when the hotel was still a magnificent family home, and later when the festival founded by Dorian Williams in 1949 was up and running, her mum – a keen amateur thespian – was invited to audition for a role.

The young Jennie began performing a variety of parts and it wasn’t long before a teacher from Surrey called John, with a similar passion for acting, also found his way to Tring.

A Shakespearean love story was born and Jennie, now 69, was expecting Sarah when she played Audrey in As You Like It.

This year she takes on the role of costume supervisor while dad John, 80, plays Sexton in his daughter’s production.

As a family they have only ever missed one Pendley, in 1988, when hotel renovations were taking place and made it impossible for the festival to go ahead.

Sarah, who is director of drama at Reigate Grammar School for most of the year, moved from performing to directing in 1999 with a production of Twelfth Night, and took over the running of the festival itself as well from David Sherratt in 2000.

These days her second in command is theatrical agent Helen Mumby.

Previously she ran the prestigious event with musical director Tom Attwood who now does a lot of work with the National Theatre, and the late Jon Ellwood, an Aldbury man, who was tragically killed in the terrorist bombings in Bali.

Jon’s niece and nephew Felicity and Freddie Aris both still perform at Pendley, continuing another important family link.

Family traditions and romantic unions are rife at this very special festival.

Bob Randall from Hemel, who has built the fabulous Pendley sets for years from a dedicated shed in the grounds of the Manor, worked closely with his brother Derek until he sadly passed away after last year’s festival, and Bob met his future wife Lynda Livsey-Randall at the 2001 event.

They even got married at the Manor and Lynda works as props mistress on the shows.

So what is it about Pendley that encourages those involved to come back year after year, giving up three weeks of precious holiday to take part in an event for which they are not paid?

Sarah believes the festival’s strong relationship with the hotel is key.

She said: “The hotel is amazing. It really feels that every year you are returning to your Pendley family.”

And of course for actors who are more used to hauling up in cheap bed and breakfasts, a three-week stay in a fabulous hotel can’t be bad either. It’s a rather luxurious payment in kind.

It’s an extremely nice job for a professional actor to have, says Sarah. “They’re able to come and live on site, be fed and have these marvellous facilities of a swimming pool and a jacuzzi.

“While it is hard work – actors really are delivering 14 hours’ rehearsal a day – the pleasure is being able to use the magnificent amenities.”

But the glorious hotel and its welcoming staff are not the only draw of the festival.

Sarah notes: “Professional actors enjoy the challenge of performing open-air Shakespeare. It’s one of those things on an actor’s to do list.”

And for new drama graduates who provide a constant influx of fresh talent, the festival provides a delightful bridge between the comfort and safety of an undergraduate course and the reality of life as a jobbing actor.

Audiences too return annually drawn by the exceptionally high standards as well as the idyllic location.

Sarah says: “As a result of the lure of the hotel facilities we are able to get a calibre of actor, which I think certain other festivals aren’t able to achieve. It is amateur in status but it’s professional in its ambition and its execution.

“The combination of lots of familiar faces but with a continual influx of new dynamic energy makes for a very safe, successful, but also endlessly regenerating and reinvigorating environment.

“The quirky relationship between the hotel and actors means that the actors feel very relaxed and very willing to work.

“And because we are literally living and breathing the event, fusing social and professional working days, it’s quite amazing what can be achieved within a seven day rehearsal period.”

This year Sarah taps into the Jubilee and Olympic spirit of the country by bringing a patriotic flavour to Shakespeare’s most popular and charming of comedies.

Set in 1945, Much Ado About Nothing will take you back to an age of wartime nostalgia.

There will be celebration and fun but a poignancy, too.

Sarah says: “I read something about VE Day that said the night was a momentous and solemn occasion interspersed with music, which I think is my aim really.”

Pendley Shakespeare Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing takes place at Pendley Manor, Cow Lane, Tring, HP23 5QY, from Tuesday, August 7 to Saturday, August 11. The grounds open from 5.30pm and the audience may take their seats from 7.45pm for an 8pm performance.

Call the box office on 01442 820060 for tickets or book online at