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Sunday, January 12, 2014


(Denise Stock and Allison Tibbats when they appeared in a show of Harold Pinter sketches titled “The Black and White” in the late 1980’s)

Actress and former UKZN Drama student Allison Tibbats passed away in the UK on December 21, 2013, after a five-and-a-half year battle with cancer. She was surrounded by family and friends and died at home, at peace and with no pain.

Actress and director Denise Stock (now Cassar and living in the UK) writes this tribute to her long-time friend.

I first met Allison in 1985 in Durban when we arrived at the University of Natal, naïve drama students with big dreams and empty pockets. Allison always had a quiet determination and seemingly effortlessly rose to the top of the class in every subject. We had a pretty fierce (but civilized) rivalry for marks and roles and, rather frustratingly, she made it all look terribly easy.

As with everything she did from the moment I met her until she left us, she faced every challenge head-on and dealt with it with grace, efficiency and candour. I was - and still am - utterly in awe of her.

At university we were part of a little triumvirate who rather modestly called ourselves the “extraordinary women” and, looking back on Allison’s life and her achievements, I can honestly say she lived up to the name. We performed many times together at the University of Natal campus theatres. Allison was a consummate professional and an incorrigible clown. She never lost her sense of humour … not when her body was failing her, not when the medical professionals were failing her and not when her alleged friend left her under a bridge on the highway into Durban one night when she was due to be performing in The King And I. Not that you ever asked for it, Alli, but this is my public apology.

I don’t suppose we are alone in being a group of graduates with wonderful and outrageous student memories but KickstArt director Steven Stead recently captured the sense of delight felt by everyone who performed with her when he described his childhood experience of performing with Allison in the 1985 production of The Sound of Music. “Alli played a demented member of a singing trio … oh my hat! Such fervour, commitment or wickedness has never been seen before or since! The breathless ecstasy, the manic bobbing of heads, the barely suppressed squeals of delight, the enormously inventive silly walks ... I used to stand in the wings every night to watch, and remember being both shocked and delighted by what these "grown-ups" were getting up to and getting away with!”

After we graduated, Allison was asked to join the prestigious Sneddon Company in Durban and performed many times at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre to great critical acclaim, receiving numerous awards for her work.

I know the memories of her time performing professionally meant a great deal to her but I am not sure that these are the achievements for which she would most like to be remembered. They seem to be the starting point of a love affair with theatre that lasted until her last breath. Although her sense of humour was wickedly razor sharp, so was her focus and she cared very deeply about the art of performance, the tradition of theatre and the importance of growing an audience.

Allison took a year out to work in the UK before coming back to South Africa where she was snapped up by The Civic Theatre in Johannesburg to work in their marketing department. Getting audiences into the theatre was a passion and a lifelong commitment for Allison.

She leaves a remarkable legacy in her home town of Chelmsford where she became a respected director and award-winning performer for the Chelmsford Theatre Workshop. Then in the last few years, despite her illness, she was responsible for the National Theatre setting up live performances via a link to the local cinema so that people with mobility issues could have access to top quality live theatre without having to negotiate public transport into London. I think this was an achievement of which she was, rightly, very proud. Even as her sight and stamina were ebbing away she was on Facebook actively encouraging people to go to the theatre.

Allison said to me several times in the last couple of years that in many ways she was grateful for her illness. It changed her life and I saw it change the lives of so many people around her. Faced with a diagnosis that would have beaten many into submission, Allison decided to fight. Using her considerable intellect and powerful voice, she selflessly chose to use her gifts to try to transform the lives of other cancer patients.

I think this is her lasting legacy. She set up an action group that rallied, lobbied and agitated as far as the high court to try to improve the availability of treatment offered to radiotherapy patients in Chelmsford. She claimed to be surrounded by “angels” in various guises but failed to acknowledge she was one of them. I was asked to write a few words about her life as a performer, but it’s difficult. She was so much more to so many people. Nothing I say can do justice to such an enormous heart and soul. She is and will always be sorely missed. - Denise Cassar