John Turner obituary | Theatre

My older brother, John Turner, who has died aged 75 of an aortic aneurysm, was a community theatre playwright and director, songwriter and singer.

John was born in Slough, Berkshire, to Hilda (nee Jefferies), who worked as a shop manager, and Matthew Turner, an engineering supervisor. John and I both attended the local Slough technical school and it was there, under the aegis of Tom Barnes, our inspirational head of English, that John gained his lifelong passion for the theatre.

In 1968 John graduated from Nottingham University with a degree in history. By then he had also performed in several university stage productions, and he was determined to develop a career in the theatre. He joined the Brighton Combination, a not-for-profit collective, where he met Jenny Harris, who became his partner of more than 40 years. In 1972 the company moved to Deptford in south-east London to become part of the Albany Empire – its first show, Watch It All Come Down, chronicled the ravages of ruthless urban redevelopment on working-class communities. John went on to write and direct All Who Sail In Her, Beggars Can’t Be Choosers, Heroes, Race With the Devil, Blood Sugar and many other shows, both at the Albany and on tour.

As the Albany’s artistic director John worked with local musicians including Squeeze, Dire Straits, the Flying Pickets and Elvis Costello. In the late 70s he formed the band Rubber Johnny in the wake of a wave of violence by skinheads around east London. In 1978 the original Albany Empire was burned down because of its support for Rock Against Racism. Rubber Johnny performed to help support the rebuilding programme.

John gave a remarkable performance as Panda, a shuffling old lag banged up in Durham jail, in the 1980 film McVicar, starring Roger Daltrey. Back on the Albany stage, in 1982 John developed the storyline from a Squeeze track into the play Labelled With Love, set in a smoky Deptford pub. Transfer to the West End was mooted, but John insisted on using the original cast in their original roles, and the promoters backed out.

John Turner formed the band Rubber Johnny after a wave of violence by skinheads in east London

John and Jenny left the Combination in 1985; Jenny to work in the National Theatre’s education department, and John to work with Circus Senso, which he directed for the Greater London council farewell festival in 1986 at the South Bank Centre, and for a Christmas show at the Hackney Empire in 1987.

In 1989 he was appointed artistic director of the Half Moon theatre in Mile End Road, where, among other productions, he directed Circus Moon, a human circus Christmas show set to a jazz funk score. Funding problems cut short his work there, and he returned to a more ad hoc role as a writer and director, as well as teaching theatre studies at Rose Bruford and Lewisham colleges.

In recent years, John had been writing a definitive history of the Albany, and 2006 saw the production of Deptford Stories, which he wrote and directed, an ambitious celebration of the local community and its changing fortunes with a cast of more than 100 people performing in the streets of Deptford and at the Albany.

Rubber Johnny also reformed during these years, and delivered several memorable performances, including at John’s 70th birthday celebration in 2016. The band kept busy during lockdown, and have 13 new songs recorded, one poignantly titled I’ve Got Lots of Time.

Jenny died in 2012. John is survived by me.

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