Obituary: Val May; theatre director who brought a wealth of experience and stars to Scottish audiences

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Born: 1 July, 1927, in Bath. Died: 6 April, 2012, in Guildford, aged 84.

Val May was one of the busiest theatre directors in the country in the 1960s and 70s. May ran the Bristol Old Vic for 14 years and the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford, for 16 years; both became established theatres under his shrewd management and acclaimed for mounting good quality new plays and well rehearsed revivals of the classics. May also built up a deserved reputation for creating productions that proved ideal for the West End and many toured Scotland with first class casts. The royalties that the Bristol Old Vic and the Yvonne Arnaud derived from such transfers proved of immense benefit to their annual income.

Valentine Gilbert Delabere May was educated at Cranleigh School and Peterhouse College, Cambridge. He trained at the Old Vic Theatre School, and directed some plays in London in 1950 before being offered his first professional posting at the Dundee Repertory Theatre the following year.

The Dundee Rep was finding its feet after the war years but was already attracting some stars of the future, for example, Richard Todd, who was to find fame in the movie The Dam Busters. In his autobiography, Caught in the Act, Todd compared the preparation for the D-Day landings to “the read-through and cast list for a new production at the Dundee Rep”.

The company performed in Foresters’ Hall and May was assistant to two artistic directors:: firstly A J Whatmore and then the renowned Robbie Robertson. The three years May spent in Dundee gave him invaluable experience and in 1953 he was appointed artistic director of the Ipswich Theatre and four years later he took over the prestigious Nottingham Playhouse.

His production there of Celebration (1961) by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall evoked the manners of a working class northern family, first at a wedding reception and then at a funeral. It transferred to the West End.

In 1961 May moved to the Bristol Old Vic’s Theatre Royal and staged a fine balance of contemporary drama and revivals. Such plays as Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra with Barbara Jefford, May’s stage version of Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace and Love’s Labour’s Lost all transferred to London’s Old Vic Theatre. His was a remarkable record and May won much respect not only among actors for his skilful and patient direction but from producers for his sure-footed skills as a manager.

In 1964 the Bristol Old Vic came to the Edinburgh Festival with two powerful productions: Shakespeare’s Henry V and Love’s Labour’s Lost. May directed the latter with an exceptional production that won praise from critics and audience alike. The strong cast included Richard Pasco, Michael Jayston and Russell Hunter.

The success in Bristol was to be repeated at Guildford, where May became artistic director in 1975. His productions there that transferred to the West End included Banana Ridge (1976); The Dark Horse (1978) and House Guest (1981).

In the 1980s May decided to become a freelance director and was in much demand for much of the standard repertoire. He became closely associated with thrillers which toured in Scotland and played to packed audiences.

He also gained a reputation for being an able director of costume dramas with a keen eye for authenticity and diction. One of his major successes was The Baccarat Scandal at the Chichester Festival in 1988. The play dealt with a betting scandal in which Edward V11 was involved and starred Keith Michell and Gary Bond.

May also enjoyed success with plays that transferred to Broadway from London. These included a startling production of Shaw’s Pygmalion with Peter O’Toole in 1987.

But it was revivals of Oscar Wilde’s plays for which May became particularly recognised. Typical was his 1978 revival of Lady Windermere’s Fan with Jessie Matthews, Moira Lister, Wilfred Hyde White and Ian Hendry. In 1991 Lisa Goddard came to Scotland as Lady Bracknell in May’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest to which May brought an ideal balance between the humour and the social commentary.

A major success came in 1984 when May directed a hit musical – Little Me – starring Russ Abbot. Abbot has told how May came into his dressing room on opening night and said: “It’s all yours, it belongs to you now. Just go out and enjoy it!” It was advice that Abbot, doing his first stage musical, found wonderfully reassuring

May, who was awarded a CBE in 1989, was a much respected figure by colleagues. Actors trusted his judgment and his calm nature and renowned unflappability soothed many problems in the rehearsal room. Val May married first, in 1955, Penelope Sutton, with whom he had a daughter. He married secondly, in 1980, Petra Schroeder, with whom he had another daughter.

Alasdair Steven