Obituary: Avril Keep, Oamaru community stalwart
In the world of musical theatre, not all leading ladies are on the stage.
Sewing costumes, helping with quick changes, ensuring accessories were in the right place, hats were worn at the correct angle and suits and dresses were clean and pressed – Avril Keep led quietly from behind the scenes.
Avril, who died in April aged 71, is remembered for her tireless contribution to a variety of North Otago organisations, in particular Musical Theatre Oamaru.
Serving on the committee for 13 years, involved with wardrobe for 21 major productions and many theatre restaurants, and a keen helper at children’s theatre shows, Avril was awarded life membership of Musical Theatre Oamaru in 2018 and last year received a Musical Theatre New Zealand merit award.
She also dedicated many years to the Scout movement in Mosgiel, Gore and Oamaru, serving as secretary-treasurer for the North Otago Zone for 22 years, a role she relinquished only about two years ago, and catering for the cavalcade for 14 years as a fundraiser for scouting in the district. She held a medal of merit and a bronze tiki for services to scouting.
It was standing room only at Avril’s Oamaru memorial service on July 11 – further proof of a life invested in the community.
Born Marilyn Avril Webb in Westcliff-on-Sea, England, Avril was the only child of Fred and Gwen Webb.
She was schooled at Staines Preparatory School and in her teenage years also attended All Saints Church, where she was part of the Chi Rho youth club. It was there she met her husband-to-be, Graham Keep.
“I always told the kids that I went out with their mother because her parents had the local pub, but the truth is that I loved her from the first day she climbed on the pillion seat of my motorbike,” Graham said.
After marrying in 1968, Avril and Graham bought a house in New Addington, London. Deborah was born 18 months later, followed by Catherine.
The family emigrated to New Zealand in 1973, settling in Mosgiel, where Avril became involved with the local Anglican church, and Graham with the scouting movement.
Then came children Laura-Beth and Derek.
In 1978, they moved to Gore and, of course, Avril became involved in the community, volunteering as a librarian for five years at West Gore School. When the children were older, she got a job as a cleaner at Gore High School and worked part-time at the Gore Public Library.
Avril was described as the “ultimate stay-at-home mum” who found her own wings when the children safely fledged. She lived for her family and her community.
“Her efforts as a mother are very much the reason we have such great kids, who have passed those values on to nine wonderful grandchildren,” Graham said.
Avril loved being a grandmother. Each grandchild was symbolised by a gold disc on a bracelet she proudly wore most days.
A talented dressmaker, Avril learned her craft from one of the best Graham’s mother, who was a trained tailoress and once made a tennis dress for the Queen Mother.
Avril’s ability to alter patterns came in very handy later, when she began sewing costumes for musical theatre shows in Oamaru.
However, it was not her ability as a seamstress that first attracted Avril to the world of musical theatre. She had a lovely singing voice and had belonged to a church choral group in the UK, taking part in various performances.
In 1987, the Gore Operatic Society decided to stage Jesus Christ Superstar and Avril successfully auditioned for a chorus role.
Sadly, her stage debut never happened, as a work transfer to Oamaru for Graham intervened.
But Gore’s loss was Oamaru’s gain.
Avril’s involvement with Musical Theatre Oamaru, then the Oamaru Operatic Society, began when the Scouts gifted their gang show wardrobe to the society. Avril did not want to see the costumes go to waste.
She went on to set up a costume-hire service for the operatic society, which she ran for about 10 years, spending many happy hours sorting through the racks of clothing, shoes and accessories and raising a considerable amount of money for the society. She also volunteered in the Nibble Nook at the old Oamaru Opera House, where sweets and ice creams were sold during the various events held there – another fundraising venture for the society.
But it was volunteering in the wardrobe for major productions that was Avril’s happy place. Helpers and performers became good friends and she never saw the work as anything but enjoyable.
She had an amazing knowledge of fabric and clothing styles from various eras and was very particular about costume details, and quick to spot any running repairs. She always had her trusty sewing machine, or needle and thread, at the ready.
The cast always knew what Avril expected of them, but she always had time for a laugh. She loved meeting new cast members, in particular the young ones, and was always delighted to welcome back old faces.
In recent years, Avril was involved backstage for Musical Theatre Oamaru’s Children’s Theatre productions and Kimberley Mavor School of Dance shows, enjoying the opportunity to become Nanny to many more children.
She also volunteered at the St John Oamaru Op Shop. In 2017, she was presented with a Waitaki District Citizens’ Award for her “outstanding volunteer work” for the betterment of the district.
“Despite all the involvement and busyness, Avril gave 100% to whatever she did,” Graham said.
Avril died at home on April 4, after a short battle with lung cancer.