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Obituary: Rex Garner, gifted comic actor and theatre director

24 May 2015 - 02:00 By Robyn Sassen

Rex Garner, one of South African theatre's most practised hands in the discipline of making people laugh, who was fierce, hilarious and unrelenting in shaping the golden years of theatrical comedy in South Africa, died on May 17 at the age of 94. The quintessential performer, who knew exactly which buttons to push to make his co-performers "corpse" (laugh involuntarily or inopportunely), Garner was considered a legend by thousands of actors, directors, theatre managers and audience members.He was well known to SABC TV viewers for his role as the lawyer Reginald Cluver in the comedy series Going Up.Garner considered the theatre genre of farce to be all about energy and timing and he believed it essential that the performer should never say anything he did not believe in, or do anything by halves, but be able to change a thought in a second and be a circus in his own head. Concentration was key, he argued, as was the skill of rediscovering one's script every evening.Even off-stage Garner was a master of comic timing, from hilarious breaking wind competitions to challenges of swindling drinks off unsuspecting bar patrons.story_article_left1In earning immense respect as a director as well as a cast member, he gave credence to the reflection that acting is listening.Knowing the value of remaining in the moment, he would often misquote a line from the play, The Jackal: "He who laughs, lasts."Garner grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands of England, where he went to school until the age of 15. The son of poor people, he wanted to be an architect. He was apprenticed in draughtsmanship.At the outbreak of World War 2, Garner was commandeered to design jigs and tools for military aircraft.But the war was an important catalyst for him - he joined an amateur dramatic society for fun.When the war ended, he is remembered to have said that he could not face a drawing board for another minute. And so he became an actor.Despite the lack of formal training, he established himself in British theatre, television and radio and began working with London West End playwright and actor Ray Cooney, remembered for Run For Your Wife, a classic British farce. In 1970, Garner was given the lead role in Cooney's production of Not Now Darling on Broadway. It bombed - the Americans didn't appreciate British humour.block_quotes_start Say the lines. Don't bump into the furniture and piss off up left," he would quip on his way to the podium block_quotes_endGarner's association with Cooney eventually resulted in him coming to South Africa for the first time in 1968. He was brought out by theatre entrepreneur Hymie Udwin, who had just started a comedy theatre called The Academy Theatre, in Rissik Street, Braamfontein.Udwin wanted a British actor or director to initiate the project. Garner's association with Cooney made him an obvious choice.Garner's first work in South Africa was a play called Uproar in the House and he rose through theatre ranks, performing in and directing hundreds of productions.In 1974, he married actress Tammy Bonell - his third marriage - and settled in Johannesburg. They separated in 1999 and divorced in 2003 but remained good friends.He was instrumental in opening career doors for many prominent figures in South African theatre, including Judy Ditchfield, Jonathan Rands and Tim Plewman. He worked with producer Pieter Toerien, later becoming a partner in Toerien's company.story_article_right2In 1983, Toerien created a new upstairs theatre at the Alhambra theatre complex in Doornfontein named the Leonard Rayne. In 1994, this theatre's name was changed to the Rex Garner Theatre.As an actor, Garner was also respected for his more serious, dramatic performances, including the role of Dad in Tim Plewman's Breakfast with Dad (2004). In 1999, he received the Fleur du Cap Lifetime Award for his contribution to the industry.By then he was no stranger to acting and directing awards. "Say the lines. Don't bump into the furniture and piss off up left," he would quip on his way to the podium.Garner had utter confidence in his performance. He believed in keeping things simple and he had his characteristically naughty twinkle in his eye until the end.Garner retired from the stage in 2007, aged 86.He was married three times. His first wife died very young, and his other marriages ended in divorce.Garner leaves seven children and seven grandchildren. He will be buried in London on June 2.1921-2015..

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