Reginald Salberg

Pragmatic manager of Salisbury Playhouse
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The Independent Online

The current attraction at the Salisbury Playhouse – Maxim Gorky's Barbarians, with a cast of over 20 – is an unusually enterprising choice for a regional repertory theatre. That Salisbury continues to have a theatre of such a high reputation and track record is due, more than any other single factor, to the character and tenacity of its earlier producer-manager Reginald Salberg.



Reginald Salberg, theatre manager: born Birmingham 4 August 1915; married Noreen Craven (deceased; two daughters); died London 2 May 2003.



The current attraction at the Salisbury Playhouse – Maxim Gorky's Barbarians, with a cast of over 20 – is an unusually enterprising choice for a regional repertory theatre. That Salisbury continues to have a theatre of such a high reputation and track record is due, more than any other single factor, to the character and tenacity of its earlier producer-manager Reginald Salberg.

The Salbergs make up a remarkable theatrical family; Reginald's brother Derek for years ran Birmingham's Alexandra Theatre, a top touring date and for a long time famous for the quality of its pantomimes, whilst a younger brother, Keith, is a theatrical agent.

Born in Birmingham, Reginald Salberg was educated at Clifton, where, under the indefatigable A.C.K. Toms, he was regularly drafted into the annual school play, which always reached an extremely high standard (Michael Redgrave's Lady Macbeth was still mentioned). He was originally intended for the law (which he studied at Oxford): it was involvement with occasional troop shows during the Second World War – he served in the Army, mostly in Egypt – which nudged him towards the theatre.

The immediate post-war period through to the inexorable rise of television in the 1960s saw a genuine golden age of British repertory, with over a hundred flourishing reps. By 1960 only around 40 remained, whilst nowadays the rise of executive-led regional theatre and the virtual disappearance of the resident-company ideal makes it mostly impossible for young actors to receive the kind of priceless stage grounding of a season's work playing a whole range of roles with a company.

Not every rep was up to the standard of the great trinity of Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool but Reggie Salberg, who at various times ran companies at places as diverse as Penge, Ketterick, Preston and Hull, was a theatre manager in the mould of Willie Armstrong of Liverpool Playhouse and Sir Barry Jackson of Birmingham Pep – he shared their talent-spotting gift too – and gradually built Salisbury's reputation.

Although Salberg chose and cast all the plays himself, he had the invaluable knack of trusting his casts and directors, providing encouragement rather than interference. Under him, Salisbury for many years was in the front rank of regional theatres, one to which young actors would apply in droves.

It was, for most of Salberg's heyday, a remarkably small operation with only a handful of loyal permanent staff; in later years he would smile wryly at the personnel lists in theatre programmes, often with more people in a marketing department than actors onstage. Originally the Salisbury Arts Theatre Company was housed in an adapted church hall with so little wing-space that actors could get to know one another more than usually intimately. With no scene-dock or store, sets and furniture had to be transported in a barrow from an old garage up the road, but scenic standards were high.

Salberg knew his town – under him the theatre was almost immediately integrated into the local community – and his audience. The repertoire was never trail-blazing but nor was it simply a repertory for routine recent West End hits reproduced from French's Acting Editions, the programme each season always including a Shakespeare as well as Chekhov, Arthur Miller and the occasional new play.

Comedy was always a Salberg speciality. He really understood how it worked, as did his director wife, Noreen Craven; stork-like tall with a ringingly clear voice, Noreen made a wonderful double-act with the more reserved, sardonic-voiced Reggie (his muttered asides could be devastating). The theatre's productions of Aldwych farces were particularly fine and a favourite Salisbury actor, Geoffrey Lumsden, a slyly lugubrious performer (each fortnight he would provide a bottle of Gordon's gin as a prize for the actor who, by company vote, had given the Worst Performance in a Really Good Part), wrote a clever farce ( Gwendolyn) for the theatre which later, as Caught Napping, transferred to the West End (Piccadilly, 1959).

He would probably never have admitted it, but Reggie Salberg loved actors, especially those who could adapt to the ethos of a company, although many actors who received first or early breaks under him – Timothy West, Leonard Rossiter, Stephanie Cole, Prunella Scales, Hywel Bennett included – went on to stellar careers.

Something of a financial wizard, he somehow managed to keep the theatre afloat, despite some nightmare funding crises, and left the organisation in excellent shape and in a spanking new building (one of the most audience-friendly of modern theatres) with two houses (the studio theatre rightly bearing his name).

In retirement he moved to Greenwich – Noreen continued to direct as a freelance, often at Salisbury – where he was a vital professional voice on the then notoriously overlarge and amateur Greenwich Theatre Board. His face at some later meetings during interminable harangues on "relevance" by some earringed councillor or drippy Arts Council apparatchik was often an eloquent study. He resigned from the board when he saw the "writing on the wall", as he put it, created by ever-increasing interference from both funding bodies and the local council.

Pragmatic always, he was resigned to inevitable change in the theatre, although he felt passionately (and he was proved right in the cases of many theatres) that a surfeit of bureaucracy could kill. In his old age he was, however, much heartened by the same sense of commitment as he had shown to both regional and London theatre from his family; both his daughters became highly regarded stage managers, whilst, most recently, his granddaughter Hannah Chissick was appointed artistic director of the Harrogate Theatre.

Alan Strachan

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