Monday, 16 May 2022

Husband is ‘on song’ with Kenton tribute to his wife

A BEREAVED husband isn’t afraid to make a song and dance about his late wife and

A BEREAVED husband isn’t afraid to make a song and dance about his late wife and everything she meant to him, their family and friends — so much so that he’s preparing to pay a moving tribute to her on stage at the Kenton Theatre this Sunday.

As keen members of Woodley Light Operatic Society, Ray and Julia Higgs appeared together in numerous productions at the New Street venue over the years.

But on New Year’s Eve 2013 their life together took a tragic turn when Julia was diagnosed with a brain tumour after being admitted to the A&E department of Reading’s Royal Berkshire Hospital.

Just over a year later, in January 2015, she died peacefully at the couple’s home in Woodley, aged 57.

The period of her illness saw Julia and Ray supported by a number of charities — who he now aims to raise funds for with two memorial shows on Sunday (September 18).

Remembering You... Julia’s Journey is billed as an evening of music and memories to celebrate a beautiful life — although in true theatrical tradition there will be a matinée performance at 2.30pm as well as an evening performance at 6.30pm.

A singer in bands and cabaret since he left school, Ray has also written a Song for Julia to mark the occasion.

Now 70, he says it is only the second song he has written in his life.

“I started writing it about four month before Julia became ill,” he says. “It was meant to be a country song and typically country songs are meant to be a little bit downbeat.

“During Julia’s illness I kind of shelved it and then I picked it up again and changed it and now I’ve got it arranged. The person who’s arranged it for me is Anthony England from Caversham, who’s performed at the Kenton himself. He’s Bonnie Langford’s musical director.”

A project engineer working as a contractor in the oil industry, Ray now describes himself as semi-retired.

Other than Julia, his passion for the past three decades has been acting in musical theatre.

It was a passion he shared with his wife and was in fact how they first met — at the Kenton, as it happens.

He says: “I met Julia at a rehearsal for Oklahoma going back 20-odd years ago. I’d failed an audition at the Kenton for Show Boat. Somebody said they couldn’t cast Curly for Woodley [Light Operatic Society] and would I be interested in going over to audition? So I did. And gradually during the rehearsals Julia and I got to know each other, and we got together. I think it was 1994.”

Ray says he would have to confirm it with the relevant people, but he thinks Julia was one of the founding members of the Woodley society.

A medical secretary by trade, Julia worked at the Spire Dunedin Hospital in Bath Road, Reading.

True to her passion for the stage, she was also involved with the town’s Starmaker Theatre Company, where she helped nurture the talents of up and coming performers — most famously Kate Winslet — a number of whom have since gone on to careers in theatre, film and TV.

Along with Anthony England and other musicians, some of these performers will be joining Ray on the Kenton stage this weekend to pay heartfelt tribute to Julia.

Among them is Stephen McGlynn — a successful theatre actor whose roles have included Harry in Mamma Mia! in the West End. Like Ray, he said he had first met Julia at the Kenton, while working on a Woodley Light Operatic Society production of the musical Sugar.

“From then on we were friends,” he said this week. “She supported me from the very start and I know that support has been a rock to me for my entire career in showbiz. Thank you Julia for everything. You will always be part of my spirit.”

As Ray recalls, a trip to Hastings in December 2014 to see Stephen perform in Aladdin alongside Louie Spence was the last theatre performance he and his wife were able to enjoy together.

“Julia was very — she was getting very ill at that time. She had a couple of episodes while we were there where she collapsed a bit, but she was determined to see Stephen. And then we saw him the next morning at breakfast with his girlfriend Laura.

“We then came home but Julia started to feel more unwell. She had to go into Dunedin and she stayed there over the Christmas period because we couldn’t get her home.

“You have to have everything set up at home and they need to be happy that you’ve got everything set up at home before they’ll allow the patient out.

“Julia eventually came out of hospital on the fifth of January and she passed away at home on the 21st.”

During the 12 months of Julia’s illness, Ray says the couple were helped greatly by having Julia’s daughter and son-in-law Cat and Eli Johnson come to live with them at their home in Woodley.

Along with Julia’s sister-in-law Elaine Henson, both Cat and Eli will be performing at the Kenton on Sunday.

Other performers on the bill include Juliette Caton, Chris Bennett, Jamie Read, Lindsey Preston, Jaz DeLorean, Lucy Seymour, Henry Bearman and the SOTA (School of the Arts) Adult Rock Choir conducted by Juliette Caton.

The show as a whole has been written by Ray, who says some details have changed along the way.

“Originally we were going to put a 14-piece orchestra on the stage — and I’ve suddenly realised as I’m writing it that it really needs to be a more intimate piece, not such a  full-on thing.

“We wanted to draw people in to say ‘this is the story, this is what Julia and I experienced through our time together.’ They were good, happy times and we want to keep those memories of the good, happy times but be aware that we also got the other side of that, which is where Julia became ill.”

In preference to the orchestra idea, Ray says musical director Anthony England will be accompanying the show’s guest artistes on the piano.

It was of course Anthony who helped give Song for Julia its final form by writing the arrangement based on Ray’s original guitar composition.

“I used to play guitar but I’m not proficient at it any more,” says Ray. “I’ve stuck to what I know best, which is singing, really.”

The song will performed in public for the first time on Sunday.

Also present at the event from noon will be representatives of Ray’s chosen charities, who will be manning stalls in the Henley Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society studio next to the Kenton, which will function as a hospitality and information centre on the day. This will be open to the public and no ticket is needed for admission.

Tickets for the show in the Kenton are priced £15 and can be booked by calling (01491) 575698 or visiting

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