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Star-making Birmingham Rep theatre turns 50

Birmingham Rep is celebrating its 50th anniversary, marking half a century of theatrical excellence.

Kenneth Branagh and James Larkin in 1988 rehearsing Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Judi Dench. Photographer: Sophie Yauner.
Kenneth Branagh and James Larkin in 1988 rehearsing Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Judi Dench. Photographer: Sophie Yauner.

Since the Rep opened on Centenary Square in 1971, the theatre has created hundreds of productions, launched iconic acting careers, and welcomed thousands of audience members.

Opened by Princess Margaret at a Royal Gala on October 10, the theatre started its artistic legacy with First Impressions, an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

The show debuted on October 14 1971, and starred Patricia Routledge as Mrs Bennet, long before she took on the TV role of Keeping Up Appearance's Hyacinth Bucket.

Theatre legends Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan, and Derek Jacobi even marked their directing debuts in the theatre, with productions of Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like it, and Hamlet.

These iconic productions were part of Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company, which was set up by Branagh and David Parfitt in 1987, and took up residence in the Rep's Studio space in 1988.

And the theatre has been the making of many iconic new plays, including East is East, which debuted in Birmingham in 1996 before becoming a hit British film, and returning in 2021 for a 25th anniversary production.

The Rep's story actually goes back even further than 1971 to the Station Street theatre, where the Old Rep is now situated.

The Birmingham Rep was truly born when Sir Barry Jackson founded The Pilgrim Players in 1907, with the aim of reclaiming English poetic drama.

Their success led them to re-name themselves as The Birmingham Repertory Company in 1911 and building Britain's first purpose-built repertory theatre on Station Street.

The Rep was a centre of innovation, with an ensemble cast of young emerging talent. It created a controversial theatrical first by staging Cymbeline in 1923, as it was the first ever Shakespeare production to take place in modern dress.

And it was the forging of theatre stars even then, helping to make the careers of John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, and Sir Laurence Olivier.

Reflecting on 50 years on Broad Street, Artistic Director Sean Foley, said: "This is such an exciting time for The REP as we celebrate 50 years in our iconic home on Centenary Square.

"Our new front entrance, foyers and bars will be open soon, and will make us a real destination venue in the city – somewhere to meet, catch a show, have a drink, and be part of the story of Birmingham’s only theatre that makes shows right here in our city.

"Since moving here in 1971, The Rep has created hundreds of productions, launched many acting careers and welcomed thousands of audience members from the city, across the country, and even the world.

"Our special 50th Anniversary Season programme is testament to our desire to share the amazing event of live theatre with our audiences again, and we have been so humbled by the fabulous response we have received, with sell-out performances of East is East and the World Premiere of the Tom Jones musical What’s New Pussycat?

"I am especially looking forward to directing my first ever show at The REP, as we celebrate Christmas with Morecambe and Wise with The Play What I Wrote – the award winning comedy I originally co-wrote and starred in.

"Our anniversary celebrations will continue well in the New Year with an incredible line up of shows from a World Premiere new version of Animal Farm to the World Premiere stage adaptation of Baroness Floella Benjamin’s autobiography Coming To England.

"To everyone in Birmingham I would say – please come and experience the new, the familiar and the extraordinary, while having a great night out at the new REP."

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