Sharon Jennings

IMG_4493

For A and B

 

Sharon was an inspiration. I know this is a cliché but this time it’s really true. She could make me and, I believe, anyone else, do things I never thought I could. I made my acting debut – and my swan song, it has to be said – at the age of fifty-two in Westminster Cathedral in front of a paying public. Sharon had written a play for a cast of seventeen men and one woman. Me. How could I resist?  Trouble was, I can’t act, despite being a sort of drama teacher and I definitely can’t remember lines. But somehow Sharon gave me the confidence to perform (I only had six lines but they were the most nerve-wracking in my life). It was the most incredible sense of achievement I had experienced thus far.  I had actually had a very important interview earlier in the day. I sailed through it apparently as all my attention had been focused on the evening’s performance.
So thank you, Sharon. What you inadvertently did for me, you did every day of your life for the children in Cambridge School and for countless other people.

Sharon and I met at the beginning of the century in Cambridge School in Hammersmith. We hit it off almost immediately. She was zany and wacky, I was the voice of sensibility and sobriety! Sharon was the RE and Music teacher. I taught English and Drama. The children, about 100 of them, all had moderate learning difficulties and a lot of personality. Sharon loved them all collectively and individually. She made each one feel special. She remembered their birthdays and acknowledged each one with a hand painted gift. She wrote plays and operettas for them every term. Most memorable were Orpheus in the Underworld, Silas Marner, Odysseus. Not easy subjects, yet she made them accessible. Every child who wanted a part had one written specially for them. If they changed their mind at the last moment they would be written out with no problem.

The dressing up provided great creativity both on stage and in her classroom. You’d go in and find kids dressed in hats and feather boas, all concentrating quietly on whatever she happened to be teaching. She baked bread with them, made clay pots, sewed and created all the time. And was adored for it. She could make the shyest of children sing and play the keyboard in front of an audience.
She herself was a brilliant performer. Countless funny voices, a wonderful wit and the bravest sense of humour. When things went wrong in her life, as they inevitably did, she was always able to practise her particular form of detachment and laugh. No bitterness, though.

When I went to visit her in hospital about a month ago, she was holding a strange contraption in her hand. I asked her what it was. Laughing gaily, she said, “Oh, it’s my latest handbag. Do you like it? It’s for my morphine and my chemo.” Now, Sharon was known for her love of handbags. Always impractical and colourful, frequently covered in beads and feathers and marabou, perfumes and cigarettes all spilling out, she would wave them around in the staff room, regaling us with stories of her travels and her children and her latest creative project.
She was a pillar of the church. A convert to Catholicism, she wore her faith firmly but lightly. She exploited the theatricality of Catholicism by using various churches as perfect venues for her plays: Spanish Place, Westminster Cathedral, both nave and crypt, Charter House, all became the most atmospheric backdrops to her writing.  After the first play with me in it and some of the priests from the cathedral I am pleased to say she splashed out on mostly real actors, who could actually do justice to her wit and wisdom.
The Polish community also made good use of her services. She painted the most beautiful and intricate sash for the chapel of Our Lady of Czestochowa in St Benedict’s Abbey. Because of that, when the Our Lady of Walsingham statue was being restored by the Polish Knights of Malta, my husband, who was also part of the project, suggested that Sharon should restore the painting of it. This was a stroke of genius because of Sharon’s already extremely close connection with the cathedral.  She insisted on absolute artistic freedom and it was wonderful watching her using feathers to recreate the marbling effect on the statue. An education in itself. IMG_4478

Painting was just one of Sharon’s many talents.  She painted on everything.  Yesterday at the funeral I wore one of her painted scarves – it was admittedly one of the brightest objects in the Cathedral – but small competition for the 20 black-garbed priests who celebrated her life with the honour and theatricality she deserved! At Easter I will display her beautiful painted eggs.
Sharon never said no if she could help anyone. She was a real life enhancer who made anyone she encountered feel special. Her parties were legendary. One Christmas my husband  and I excitedly trekked to Vauxhall in the pouring rain and had just dismissed the taxi. We rang the doorbell in a state of very pleasurable anticipation – her parties were always good, lovely refreshments and fascinating people – and a somewhat tired looking Sharon opened the door.  She asked us what we were doing.  I thought she was joking so I put my foot in the door and said, “We’ve come to your party, of course.”

“The party was yesterday.”

“It said today on my invitation.”

“You’d better come in then.”

And so we did. What had happened was that on the invitation she had written a different day and date.  We worked to the date, she to the day.

We drank some champagne, she cobbled a delicious meal from the leftovers, we drank some more champagne and had a great time.  Impossible not to, really.

Sharon, I shall miss you so much, not just for the parties and plays, but for your passion and kindness.  Rest in peace!

 

Advertisements

3 comments on “Sharon Jennings

  1. What an inspiring and wonderful woman Sharon sounds, I wish I had known her. Very beautifully written as always Basia XX

    Sent from my Windows Phone ________________________________

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s