He presided over four decades of change in the theatre in Africa
In the late 1950s, Adrian Stanley, who has died of a heart attack aged 83, was freelancing in the theatre, and finding the provincial "re-producing" of West End plays unsatisfying. Then, out of the blue, he was asked to produce a series of plays for amateur societies in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). He spent six months on the Copperbelt, before being invited to Cape Town University to produce Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. While pondering his next move, Stanley was contacted by Professor Norman Mackenzie of the Southern Rhodesia Dramatics Society, who wanted him to adjudicate at the society's 1959 drama festival. Stanley had admired tree-lined Salisbury (now Harare), capital of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), when he passed through on his way from the Copperbelt, and accepted the invitation.
After the festival he produced Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo for the Umtali Players, which starred Ruth Dawson, the mother of the Daily Telegraph's Zimbabwe correspondent, until she was hounded out of the role by irate Catholics. "What on earth are you doing here?" Dawson asked Stanley. "I should ask the same of you," he retorted.
It was the 1960 production of Under Milk Wood for the Repertory Players (Reps) company of Salisbury that determined the rest of his life. "How," asked one critic, "can Mr Stanley, or anyone else for that matter, hope to transform the script into anything resembling theatre?" But together with Tom Maybank, then considered the most original artist in Salisbury, they achieved "a canvas which conveyed Llareggub compellingly and indisputably as three-dimensional, as a place which was either hot or cold, which sometimes smelt when the wind was blowing in from the sea and which was vibrant with the lives and lovings of its inhabitants." Critics praised the acting, and the professional polish Stanley applied made him - with minor interruptions - the company's director/producer for the next 40 years.
That year had also seen Reps vote 82-6 in favour of all races joining its society and victory in the "battle of the toilets", where the municipal public work committee had attempted to enforce segregation. The opinion of Advocate Macaulay QC demolished the committee's arguments and was said to read like an extract from Gilbert and Sullivan. "One illegal use by a member of the wrong race," wrote Macaulay, would thus render [the toilet] incapable in law of being used by any race at all, thus removing it altogether from the awkward problem of human relations." The council backed down. Black people hardly queued up to attend Reps productions and the problem quietly went away.
Stanley was a consummate theatre man, quick-witted, with a sharp tongue, and what he brought to more than two generations of largely white audiences was popularist, Anglophile culture. He presided from a period of massive box office success in the colonial era, to one where traditional western theatre and musicals struggle to find relevance.
His most successful period was in the 1960s and 70s, when he secured the first rights outside Britain and the US to Godspell, and to Jesus Christ Superstar, which premiered to Christian pickets - and extra attention for the multiracial cast from certain quarters of the settler populace. Reps was never in the vein of South African protest theatre and a 1970s opera in Shona flopped.
A grocer's son, born in Birkenhead, Stanley developed his taste for dramatics at Rock Ferry high school, where his first break was playing in John Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln. Accepted by the London School of Dramatic Art, he spent nine months in residence, before call-up in 1943. Asthma saw him discharged in 1944. It was to be the only year he played the West End, as a reporter in The Rest is Silence at the Prince of Wales. After stints in repertory in Watford and Falmouth, he tried his hand again at the big time in the early 1950s, before retreating to Henley-on-Thames, where he ran the Old Regency Theatre. From 1953 to 1957 he freelanced, until the call to Africa came.
The post-independence period presented more challenges as many white people emigrated. The Reps youth wing, Repteens, worked with a good deal of black talent, but there was little follow-through after high school. Abandoned playhouses stretching the continent owe less to the advent of film and video than an inability to provide something more relevant and less alien for the majority to embrace. Still, with white support guaranteed, Stanley kept going with his formula to a greying demographic.
He died in the 75th year of the establishment of Reps and while directing The Music Man. His memorial service, held at Reps, mixed eulogies and songs, including I'll Be Seeing You by his one-time muse, Alvin Collinson, who became an accomplished cabaret performer in South Africa. It was "just short of a full-length play," said one attendee.
· Adrian Stanley, producer and director, born September 2 1922; died August 10 2006
(Obituaries - The Gardian - Thursday November 9 2006)