Kenneth Branagh’s Latest Role at Progress Theatre

Get Reading, 29 July 2011
By Sally Bryant

The news that actor Kenneth Branagh has become patron of Reading’s Progress Theatre has been greeted with “absolute” delight by a woman who trod the Christchurch Road boards with him. Pauline Gray has been a member of the theatre for nearly 40 years and was in a production of 'The Drunkard' with Branagh when he was just 16.

It was his first stage role, apart from school productions, and Mrs Gray recognised his outstanding talent then.

She has watched him go on to become one of the greatest Shakespearean actors – and now that he’s officially put his name to the theatre where he began, she is overjoyed. Mrs Gray, who is 73 and lives in Shinfield Road, said yesterday: “I am absolutely delighted.“I have been in countless productions [at the Progress] and I think this will give a huge profile to Progress.

“He is a huge name and he started there as an actor. He is the most lovable man and very humble.”

Mrs Gray had several scenes in 'The Drunkard' with Branagh in 1977. “I spotted his talents then,” she said. “It was his grasp of a character and his enthusiasm for the character, the play and performing.

“He then went on to RADA, and my husband Harry and I helped him choose his pieces for his audition. It was very, very obvious he was going to go far.”

Mrs Gray last saw the actor and director in Chekov’s 'Ivanov' in the West End a couple of years ago, and went backstage to his dressing-room. “He greeted us as long-lost friends,” she said. “He never forgets his roots, which is so nice in someone so famous.”

The Academy Award and BAFTA-nominated actor showed his fondness for the theatre that gave him his first break on agreeing the new official link.

Mr Branagh – who was a book columnist for the Reading Evening Post in the 1980s when he called himself Ken – said: “I am delighted to be appointed as a patron of the Progress Theatre in Reading. “I relocated to Reading at the age of nine from Belfast and my stage career started at the Progress when I was a teenager.

“Next year the theatre celebrates its 65th anniversary and continues to maintain a quality of production that remains second-to-none.”

And Aidan Moran, former Progress chairman, has also applauded the move. He said: “Kenneth’s endorsement as a highly successful film, radio, television and stage actor and director adds further credibility to the quality and diversity of theatre we produce.”

Branagh, 50, is a former Whiteknights Primary and Meadway pupil. Mr Moran said he had been “very supportive” over the years to the theatre where he first stepped into the spotlight. For example, he wrote the introduction to the company’s outdoor production of 'The Tempest', which closes tomorrow at Caversham Court.

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