John Goodrum and Karen Henson: couple who are passionate about theatre
In a modest scout hut off an unostentatious street in Chesterfield, four actors are having an afternoon rehearsal for their latest production. In this location you might expect to see amateur thespians but one of them is recognisable as a television regular and the other three have significant experience of theatre, radio and film.
This is the start of one of the many tours organised by John Goodrum, founder, writer and director of Rumpus Theatre Company whose productions can be seen regularly at the Pomegranate in Chesterfield and Buxton Opera House.
He runs Rumpus from his home in South Wingfield. Amazingly the tiny, two-up, two-down terraced cottage is also the base of his wife Karen Henson’s theatre company Tabs Productions which produces the Classic Thriller Season at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal every summer as well as taking plays all over the country.
John and Karen could hardly be described as “luvvies”. They are welcoming, personable and slightly exuberant as they explain how they met, how their careers have taken parallel paths and what they get out of running their own companies. They are passionate about theatre.
John who was brought up in Morden, south London wanted to be an actor from the time he was taken to see pantomimes starring Bruce Forsyth, Arthur Askey and Roy Castle at a theatre in Wimbledon.
He studied drama and music in Bristol for three years and then started to pick up parts at a time when many theatres were hosting rep seasons – with a group of actors performing different plays over a few weeks.
“I looked very young in those days,” says John. “In my mid-20s up to my 30s I still looked like a teenager. I was useful to people as I could play young parts and I had music as well. So I did some really nice rep work.
“I played Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh on tour when I was about 32 – I shaved my legs for the part and some of it never grew back!”
Acting work became scarce when people realised that John was too old to play younger parts, so he decided to write his own show.
“An actor friend who’d been to Vienna sent me a postcard of Schubert saying I looked like him and ought to do a play about him. I thought I looked nothing like him, but two years down the line I wrote a one-man show about Schubert in his dying years.
“I needed a company to put it on and a name to do it under. A group of us in Chesterfield had been talking about setting up a company. I came up with the word Rumpus and we used that for the show at the old arts centre in Chesterfield. We were then asked to do two shows at the Pomegranate. We started touring in 2000 and here we are still doing it.”
As the company’s standing has increased, John has been able to attract actors who are well known from their appearances on the small screen. Rumpus’s latest production features Ian Sharrock. He had a nine-year stint as Jackie Merrick in Emmerdale Farm as well as appearing in Heartbeat, The Bill, Casualty and as Alan Partridge’s most obsessive fan Jed Maxwell in I’m Alan Partridge.
John has taken four stories by E W Horning and adapted them into a single play, Raffles: The Mystery of the Murdered Thief.
It will go on a major tour, although John says it is really hard for a small company to sell plays to regional theatres because there are fewer venues on the circuit. Some theatres have reduced the amount of drama they take in; tribute shows, concerts, comedians and one-nighters form the backbone of their programme. The risk of touring is that shows do not attract enough customers at the box office.
“We like a show to pay its way but it does get increasingly difficult,” says John whose company receives no Arts Council or local authority subsidies to put on work.
It is a situation his wife Karen has found with Tabs Productions: “You become more limited in what you produce because you have to think ‘is this going to be popular, is this going to sell seats?’ rather than ‘this is a lovely play, I’d love to do it’.”
So what does it cost to put on a production? Last autumn Rumpus toured two dramas, Father Brown – The Curse of the Invisible Man, featuring John Lyons, best known as Detective Sergeant George Toolan from the drama A Touch of Frost which starred David Jason; and Karen’s play The Haunted Dolls’ House. Between them they cost £46,000 to stage. That was before a single seat had been sold.
When John formed Rumpus his mission was to put on plays that were well written and entertaining. The company became known on the touring circuit for mystery and gothic horror stories which were ideal for Halloween.
Says John: “While that’s far from my only interest, it seems to appeal to audiences, managements and sells well. So if it ain’t broke . . .”
Often Rumpus and Tabs work alongside each other. They will soon be turning their attention to a play season in the middle of January at the Pomegranate which features two Rumpus productions, Derek Benfield’s Look Who’s Talking and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Tabs’ presentation of Anthony Shaffer’s whodunnit Sleuth.
But before that John, whose CV includes a three-month stint on the BBC Radio 4 soap The Archers, will be writing and playing the dame in a panto at Broadstairs, Kent.
Karen, who says she was precocious as a child, went to arts educational schools before studying at Bristol Old Vic theatre school.
Her first professional job was in the chorus for a panto at York Theatre Royal. Work came flooding in and she became a regular with a company run by the late Colin McIntyre, founder of the Classic Thriller Season.
Another member of the company was Adrian Lloyd-James. In 1989 he and Karen decided to produce plays themselves under the name Tabs. Since then they have staged more than 120 productions ranging from Shakespeare to Stephen King. Six years ago Tabs took over the Classic Thriller Season after Colin McIntyre’s death.
Actors who have appeared on Tabs’ tours include Toyah Wilcox, Joe McGann, Colin Baker and Sandra Dickinson.
John and Karen first got together in 1995 when they did a summer rep season in Sheringham, Norfolk at a theatre run by Freda Kelsall, formerly a writer for Heartbeat and Emmerdale.
“We did some wonderful summer seasons. We’d be rehearsing from 10am until 3pm, then we’d go to the beach and do the show in the evening,” says John.
“When we had our daughter Millie, another couple had a son and Freda always used to build the season around childcare.”
He turns to Karen and says: “We were in When We Are Married by J B Priestley and I was in the first half and you were in the second. We did the child swap-over at the interval.”
Karen takes over: “I was in the theatre with Millie under my arm in full Edwardian make-up and hat.” “And I’d dash out and put her to bed, having done my bit already,” adds John.
“Freda always made sure that one of us was free to look after the children,” says Karen with a smile.
Millie is now 18 but will not be pursuing a theatrical career; she has just started a history degree at university in Leicester.
So what is it like for the couple to act together?
“It’s fine,” says Karen. “We do have furious arguments though.”
“That makes it exciting,” John chips in.
Karen lifts the lid on their relationship: “Sometimes he’ll say ‘are you really going to play it like that?’ Especially if he’s written it. ‘Why don’t you just say the line as I wrote it?’ How do you feel about working with me darling?” she asks him.
“Great. Of course you do have little niggles but it’s a short cut really because you know exactly how the other person’s going to react, their acting style, everything that they’re going to do. That can be so creative and productive.”
So what’s John’s ambition? “I was asked that when I was just starting out as an actor, whether I wanted to be famous or anything. I piously said then ‘I would like to keep working and keep doing the same job’.
“I’ve fulfilled that ambition. I’d like to keep Rumpus going as it does for another five or so years. Maybe when I get too old to act or produce I can just write plays and compose symphonies.”
Karen, who has taken roles in Dr Who audio books, says theatre is her life. “I must admit I do like to do everything, even the VAT. I do get a certain joy out of bringing it all together. Maybe I’m just very bossy, a control freak. I think probably what I’m most proud of is giving so many people work.”
As Karen dashes off to work on her next production, John returns to directing duties in the rehearsal room. Raffles, once described as “the second most popular fictional character of the time” behind Sherlock Holmes, is ready to cause another rumpus.
* This article appeared in the November 2016 edition of Country Images magazine