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Penny had a starring role in saving theatre company

Tributes are paid to ‘a wonderful actress, a wonderful director and a wonderful person’

07 December, 2018 — By Samantha Booth

Penny Tuerk in the play Stevie in 1979

PENNY Tuerk’s voice was the first to fill the Tower Theatre in the opening performance at its new home.

As the Chorus, she finished her first monologue with: “Who prologue-like your humble patience pray, gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.”

Weeks after the opening performance, the actress, director and one of the leaders of the fringe theatre group died, aged 71.

To those close to her, Ms Tuerk will be remembered for carrying the theatre through its most difficult time. It was left without a home for 14 years after losing its former base at Canonbury Tower following a clerical mix-up, and moved to the new playhouse in Stoke Newington in September.

“She was a wonderful actress, a wonderful director and a wonderful person,” said Robert Pennant Jones, her friend of around 45 years.

“She will be most remembered for the huge contribution she made to the Tower Theatre, not only on the artistic side, but on keeping the company afloat. She was wonderful in keeping the company together.

“In retrospect, speaking the first words is very poignant.”

Ms Tuerk grew up in Cambridge with her parents Syd and Jo Kirk­man. Theatre was in her blood: her mother had been a professional actress and her grand­father was comedian Syd Walker. She also starred alongside Helen Mirren in the National Youth Theatre.

Ms Tuerk in the Tower Theatre play Copenhagen in 2006 (Photo: Ian Cole)

After studying medieval history at York University, she moved to west London to begin a job as studio manager at the BBC, where she worked until she retired from her job as a control­ler on the World Service.

Having taken part in amateur dramatics at university, she carried on her hobby with the Tower Theatre.

Laurence Tuerk, her husband of 43 years, said: “She never wanted to be a professional actor as quite rightly she saw she could get much better parts in amateur theatre.”

Ms Tuerk spent her first few years acting, before taking up directing. She went on to star in about 50 plays, and directed about 30.

Behind the scenes she played a pivotal part in the theatre’s direction. She served on the main committees for about 40 years, including being chairman of the company committee. Her work was key in negotiating a financial settlement to help buy the new theatre – a former gym – in Northwold Road, Stoke Newington.

“Penny was worried about the fact it needed to survive and she worked very hard,” said 72-year-old Laurence. “She could be quite angry if things were not going well, if people weren’t pulling their weight and letting the side down, but on the other hand she was very diplomatic, she tried to avoid rows and get the best out of people.”

Jeff Kelly, from Tower Theatre, said: “She had a brilliant relationship with challenges and changes. She described herself as a change junkie.”

Ms Tuerk, who lived in Elstree, Hertfordshire, was due to direct the play Deposit – about the housing market – next year. Instead Martin Mulgrew will take over her role, with the play continuing in her memory.

She died on November 26 following a stroke.

A memorial to celebrate her life is expected to take place in the new year.


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