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Dame Judi Dench reopens the Ashcroft Playhouse

The celebrated actor, Judi Dench, celebrates her friend and mentor Dame Peggy Ashcroft at Croydon’s new arts venue

Dame Judi Dench formally rededicated the Ashcroft Playhouse at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls to her friend and Croydon-born fellow actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft. In a special launch event in September, Dame Judy also unveiled the People’s Picture, a giant commemorative mosaic by artist Helen Marshall, made up of photos of local residents. She then took to the stage for a Q&A with broadcaster John Hannam, and Dame Peggy’s biographer and Guardian theatre critic, Michael Billington OBE.

Dame Judi told the audience that it was Dame Peggy that influenced her to go in to acting. “I wanted to be a theatre designer,” she said. “Then I saw Dame Peggy playing Cleopatra and I’d never seen anything like it. It was then I decided to be an actor.”

The two became close friends with Dame Peggy advising Judi on her career. “We were great friends but she was also a mentor and someone you could readily go to if you had any kind of doubts. She was the most easy person to talk to. She was a great friend and I miss her.”

Dame Judi, who grew up in Yorkshire, was also inspired to become an actor by her brother Jeffery, who found great acclaim with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She never wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, a doctor, she told the audience.

One of her earliest shows was in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. Dame Judi recalled: “There is a line ‘where art my mother and father…’ My parents had actually come down from York to see the performance and my father called out, ‘We’re here darling!’”

Dame Judi reckons that acting is so much a thing of chance rather than talent – you’re there in the right place at the right time and your face just fits for a certain role. She laughed when reminded of a screen test she went for and was told that she had every single wrong with her face. “…to which there is no reply,” she said.

It certainly did her no harm, with Dame Judi one of our most respected actresses for both her stage and screen work. She even added the role of M in the James Bond films to her CV. “Michael told me he’d always wanted to live with a Bond Girl,” said Judi, laughing at her husband’s comments at the time. Dame Judi married fellow actor Michael Williams in 1971, and went on to star with him in the comedy A Fine Romance. He passed away in 2001.

She advised young actors that want to follow in her footsteps: “See as much theatre as you possibly can. Build up a library inside of you on how people behave in certain moments.” She acknowledged how tough it can be, particularly in our current climate. “It is so hard to be cast at the moment. And we’re lucky to be employed.”

Dame Judi said that her passion is working in theatre. “It is never the same each night and you always get a different reaction. In film you have to pare everything down. It doesn’t come naturally.”

John Hannam and Michael Billington discussed with Dame Judi the current state of theatre. Concerns were raised that we don’t have the same appetite for classic theatre with ‘panto-style’ devices being used to draw people in. Added Dame Judi: “I do hope young people will want to do and see Shakespeare. And I hope it is taught enough in schools.”

At 84, Dame Judi, who lives in Surrey, has no plans to retire: “To retire is to stop doing a job you have done all your life to paint to walk to travel. But I am doing the job that I would retire to if I got the chance.”

Dame Judi previously visited Fairfield Halls on 23 June 1993, when she unveiled a display commemorating Dame Peggy’s life including a painting, photographs and an Evening Standard award.

The Ashcroft Playhouse was originally called the Ashcroft Theatre and was opened by Dame Peggy in 1962. Dame Peggy loved Croydon for being, “a quiet market town fringed by countryside.” The audience heard that there is no blue plaque on her house, something which it is hoped can be changed.

Find out about upcoming performances at Fairfield Halls