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Ken Hill; Obituary

18 February 1995 - Features, Page 23
Written for The Times, London

Ken Hill, playwright and theatre director, died from cancer on January 23 aged 57. He was born on January 28, 1937.

KEN HILL was a protege of Joan Littlewood at Theatre Workshop. He was happiest directing chaotic musicals on the tiny stage of the old Theatre Royal, Stratford East Theatre Workshop's home in London for many years but he also had hits in the West End and abroad, among them The Invisible Man and the original stage version of The Phantom of the Opera.

His stock-in-trade was musical adventure stories. Like Littlewood, his aim was to make things look fresh and improvised, to which end he might spend hours working on one tiny scene with his cast. He set his lyrics to out-of-copyright popular tunes, so that the audience felt familiar with his songs without ever quite being able to place them, and, more importantly, so that music could be adapted without paying royalties the budgets at Theatre Workshop being famously small. He had an encyclopaedic musical knowledge. For instance, in his current show, Zorro The Musical!, his lyrics were accompanied by melodies from 19th-century Spanish operetta.

He was born in Birmingham, and educated at King Edward's School, after which he joined an amateur theatrical company, Crescent Theatre, sweeping the floor, making props, writing and directing. His first play, Night Season, was put on at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, in 1963. For a time he worked as an investigative journalist for ATV and it was there that he caused a minor uproar with his report on corruption in Birmingham's local government.

In 1970 Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop returned to its old home, the dilapidated Theatre Royal, Stratford East. A satire on local authorities was discussed as a good subject for a new production, and Hill's name was put forward as a possible writer. The result of the collaboration Hill's Forward Up Your End (1970) was condemned by some of the press for its juvenile humour but Littlewood liked it and Hill stayed on.

He was roped in as an actor in numerous productions but writing, not acting, remained his first love. He was made associate director and resident writer at Theatre Workshop from 1970 to 1974 and from 1974 to 1976 he took over as artistic director, Littlewood by this time having left for projects in Tunisia.

Hill's productions included Is Your Doctor Really Necessary? (1973), The Count of Monte Cristo (1974), Gentlemen Prefer Anything (1974) and Dracula (1974). He cut a conspicuous front-of-house figure, joking with customers at the bar, and patrolling the stage with little solo dances until the audience was settled. In rehearsal he would leap about the stage to demonstrate ideas to his actors, a sight made even more alarming by his height and shock of red hair. He could be stinting with praise for his actors and had little small talk; but he always got the best out of his cast.

He left Theatre Workshop in 1976 and worked for some years at Newcastle Playhouse. He returned in 1984 with his version of The Phantom of the Opera, the first musical adaption of the story. Andrew Lloyd Webber saw and liked it, and for a while there was talk about his bringing it into the West End. Nothing came of this, however, and Lloyd Webber's own version duly opened in the West End in 1986. Hill's Phantom transferred in 1991 but, despite excellent notices, did badly at the box office and was forced to close. It enjoyed a warmer reception abroad, particularly in America.

The Invisible Man fared better in the West End, transferring from Stratford East to the old Vaudeville Theatre in 1993. This show was a particular favourite of Hill's, combining his love of stage trickery and childish optical jokes in scenes in which, for instance, the unbandaged ``invisible'' head of the Invisible Man smokes a cigar. Hill made everyone working in the theatre, from the cleaning staff upwards, sign a document forbidding them to reveal how this was done to the press.

Despite having cancer intermittently for the past 12 years, Hill continued to deluge Stratford East with ideas for new productions.

He is survived by his wife, the actress Toni Palmer, and two sons from a previous marriage.