‘Roger Moore was in my RADA class. He wasn’t a good actor...’

Eileen Norris in the Kings Theatre, Southsea
Eileen Norris in the Kings Theatre, Southsea
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At the age of 84, Eileen Norris is achieving a burning ambition– bringing to the stage one of Dickens’s lesser-known works, Chris Owen reports

Rioting in the streets. Alcohol abuse. Bad parents. Religious bigotry. Oh, and a hero with special needs.

The plot could be a reflection of modern life. It isn’t, but Eileen Norris says, with great glee, that it could hardly be more appropriate in early 21st century Britain.

‘It’s got everything we can relate to in 2012, but it was written in 1839 about something that happened more than 230 years ago.’

The ‘it’ to which Eileen is referring is Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens. To the TV adaptation and celluloid audience it is one of his least-known works.

But Eileen is convinced it will sit well with people.

She says: ‘It couldn’t be more appropriate. It’s got everything: riots, child abuse, people who drink too much, revolting workers and a hero described in Dickens’s day as an idiot, but who today we recognise as being autistic [the eponymous Barnaby].’

Eileen, of Valiant Gardens, Hilsea, Portsmouth, has adapted the enormous novel for the stage. It’s been a labour of love with which she started tussling in the mid-1990s.

It will now be performed at the Kings Theatre, Southsea, in August as part of the city’s celebrations marking the 200th birthday of Portsmouth’s most famous son.

Set against the backdrop of the Gordon Riots of 1780, Barnaby Rudge is a story of mystery and suspense which begins with an unsolved double murder and goes on to involve conspiracy, blackmail, abduction and retribution.

Through the course of the novel fathers and sons become opposed, apprentices plot against their masters and Protestants clash with Catholics on the streets.

‘It took me many years to appreciate the book, but I finally got it,’ adds Eileen, a commanding and energetic 84-year-old with a long and colourful history in the theatre.

‘My first script ran to nearly four hours long – far, far too long – but I’ve cut it to two-and-a-half hours now.

‘I love it now, but it’s a brute to do.’

‘I read it, re-read it and not liked it. I really wasn’t comfortable with it, but then the penny dropped.’

In the same way that the brooding, impenetrable fog at the opening of Bleak House is a metaphor for the tangled web of the law, Barnaby Rudge has a pub, The Maypole.

‘This pub had been there since the days of Henry VIII and what Dickens does is use it to define the state of the nation as it was at the time of the anti-papacy Gordon Riots 200 years or so later.’

Eileen, an only child, was born in a small Essex village in 1927. Her father was a milkman, her mother Irish, but, she adds quickly: ‘Liverpool/Irish – that does make a difference because even though her family had very little in Bootle, they valued education.

‘I’m a working class kid, but there were always books in the house and I only had one ambition. I wanted, desperately to go into the theatre. That’s all I cared about.

‘I think I was about eight when my mother asked me whether I wanted to do: elocution, music or dance. I’m sure she wanted me to get into music hall, become another Gracie Fields. But I chose dance and I was the lead dancer in this little group which played all sorts of places including workhouses.’

At 17 she won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and spent much of her formative years watching Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson at the peak of their stage careers at the Old Vic.

Her association with Olivier was to come full circle when she joined him as an assistant stage manager for the opening season at Chichester Festival Theatre 50 years ago this summer.

‘In my class at RADA was Roger Moore, who wasn’t a good actor and Jean Alexander [the legendary Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street], who you simply wouldn’t have recognised.’

Her teachers were trying to turn out leading ladies. She guffaws. ‘Look at me. I was never going to be a Rank starlet. I’ve got huge legs. I didn’t fancy all that commercial stuff. I’m much more into classical drama and I really wanted to direct.’

But she didn’t like RADA and in post-war Britain there were few opportunities for females director. So, needing to make a living, she used a background in the sciences to become a lab technician for Shell. ‘You really do need to be an all-rounder in life to survive.’

Eileen, a widow, married Gordon Norris in 1952. They met over a Bunsen burner in the laboratory at Shell.

‘I was working on things like trying to find the calorific value of bitumen. It was dangerous at times with flames travelling up to 40 feet across the room. It was quite exciting even though my arms were in bandages on my wedding day.’

She followed Gordon around Britain and The Netherlands as he moved jobs, but she still had a burning desire to direct in the theatre.

Eileen had taken a job at the Corona Theatre School where she remembers teaching a young Dennis Waterman. That led to her taking the fledgling actors on tour to Dublin where she was spotted and offered a job at Chichester where the theatre in Oaklands Park was being built.

‘When I first got to the theatre there was nothing but concrete dust. There was no floor, no seats and it was cold. There was simply nothing there.

‘I got £3 a week to pay for my digs, but I was doing what I wanted to do and I wanted to see how audiences would react to theatre in the round. And where better than at Chichester with Olivier.’

Olivier was Chichester’s first director and he appeared in two of that first season’s productions.

‘It was a dream come true for me to be working alongside someone of Olivier’s stature. He was wonderful to me, incredibly perceptive and thoughtful. He knew I wanted to be a director and he would come and sit by me at rehearsals and explain what he was trying to do.’

She went on to work at the Bristol Old Vic and the Liverpool Everyman where she adapted the Wakefield Mystery Plays which were picked up ABC TV.

‘At last I had got paid for my first professional adaptation,’ she recalls with fervour.

She eventually set up a voice and speech school at Birdham, near Chichester, where she was living and later expanded to Bedhampton where the theatre group Alchemy was formed. It is this company which will perform her adaptation of Barnaby Rudge at the Kings in the summer.

‘It’s been a hell of a life, hasn’t it? I’m very proud of what I’ve done.

‘You’ve just got to go get out there, seize it with both hands and take what it has to offer.’