Big year for local theatre

The credit crunch and political scandals have made life decidedly gloomy of late but Arts Editor Andrew Clarke rejoices in the fact that theatre can still make a difference.

Andrew Clarke

The credit crunch and political scandals have made life decidedly gloomy of late but Arts Editor Andrew Clarke rejoices in the fact that theatre can still make a difference.

THEATRE in East Anglia was in particularly robust shape in 2009. The Mercury Theatre in Colchester celebrated a major anniversary, the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, staged a world premiere, the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, really got to grips with staging homegrown productions and Eastern Angles branched out both geographically and in the subject matter of their plays.

Colchester's Mercury theatre is one of the few theatre's left in the country which has been able to maintain a theatrical company - a group of actors who are attached to a particular theatre - a policy that maintains a repertory feel to home-produced shows.

This year marked the tenth anniversary of the Colchester Theatre Company, established by artistic director Dee Evans and Gregory Floy, and in order to mark the occasion the theatre commissioned Depot - a locally-themed, multi-media theatrical experience which combined professional actors with local amateurs and did not even take place in the theatre.

Instead Depot, the company's 80th production, set up its home at the old 1930s Tram Depot on Magdalen Street. The show was created by writer/director Gari Jones and was designed as promenade performance allowing to give voice to some of Colchester's lost souls. Hidden personalities and forgotten stories.

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It allowed audiences to travel in time with an elusive young boy to the town's past - not the guide book past of official histories and Roman ruins but the real nitty, gritty past, populated by ordinary people, telling stories dug through research and talking to current residents and generations of Colchester families.

The stories were woven into mobile narrative which saw a widow being accused of witchcraft and being judged by her neighbours, a girl seeking sanctuary in a church, before finding a couple asleep in a floating bed and a scientist making electrifying discoveries.

The ambitious production used an array of storytelling devices to weave its tale including film, music, projection, installation and live action. Alongside a cast of favourite Mercury actors, including Christine Absalom, Ignatius Anthony, Roger-Delves-Broughton, Clare Humphrey, Charlie Morgan, David Tarkenter and Tim Treslove, Depot will also utilised a community acting company and a community choir.

If Depot was all about theatre-making inroads into the 21st century, then Nora was traditional theatre, Ibsen's The Doll's House, but given a slight twist by the Mercury company who decided to use a script prepared by Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman when he turned the play into a film in 1973.

The alternative script gave the action a sharper focus, zeroing in on the psychological drama and Nora's personal struggle for identity. It also shifted the time and location from 19th century Denmark to Edwardian London.

The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich is another production house that likes to use familiar faces, even if they don't have such a formal arrangement tying them to one theatre.

The New Wolsey has an enviable reputation for employing talented actor-musicians who, it seems, turn their hand to anything with equal aplomb. In the spring they staged a sell-out success with Alan Ayckbourn's cuttingly funny look at the amateur drama scene in A Chorus of Disapproval.

Local actor Julian Harries, who last seen at the New Wolsey in Neville's Island, played the hapless newcomer to a society planning to stage The Beggar's Opera only to find himself embroiled in a web of illicit romance and petty politics.

Wolsey favourite Paul Leonard, who came close to stealing the show as the deaf, rather batty local councillor, then reappeared in the autumn delivering another powerhouse performance as Potter, the mean-spirited industrialist, in the world premiere of the musical It's A Wonderful Life.

Written by Steve Brown and directed by the Wolsey's artistic director Peter Rowe, It's A Wonderful Life showed that regional theatre was well-able to deliver performances that would not look out of place on a West End stage. The imaginative staging also meant that the action kept zipping along at a brisk pace, while allowing the action to nip and back forth over the years without confusing the audience.

The show also illustrated that the area has a wealth of talented children who were all recruited from open auditions to play substantial roles within the play and some even taking important singing roles. The achievement of the finished production is made all the more remarkable that the adult rehearsals were held largely in London while the children were rehearsed separately in Ipswich, the two groups not coming together until a week before the show.

The success of this wonderful new musical is a major milestone not just for the New Wolsey but for all regional theatre.

In the west of the county Colin Blumenau has continued to raise the profile of the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds. The theatre having enjoyed a major restoration, returning it to its Georgian splendour, is now showcasing its own homegrown productions - not just in its Restoring The Repertoire seasons - but also in touring productions which start life at Bury before going on to middle scale theatres across the country.

In the past year Colin has recruited associate director Abigail Anderson, formerly of The Globe Theatre, in London, who delivered a hysterical production of Twelfth Night in the spring before making a big splash with Edwardian classic Three Men In A Boat. These were both high profile productions to which Colin added The Massacre - a world premiere of a 18th century play which had been censored by its own author Stanningfield-born Georgian playwright Elizabeth Inchbald.

It was a sharply-written satire which exposed political corruption as well as state-sanctioned murder. It was a powerful play which showed how theatre could always provide some unwelcome light on some shady deals in the corridors of power. Satire was always a powerful weapon as the second Restoring The Repertoire production of year He's Much To Blame by Thomas Holcroft proved. It may have been cleverly funny but the points of the barbs were not lost on audiences either then or now.

Regional touring company Eastern Angles have had an equally busy year. They started last spring staging Return To Akenfield, weaving a series of first person stories from the book, into a new fictional narrative before tackling the changing nature of East Anglia's population in the immigration drama Getting Here.

The production was designed as a promenade performance and staged in Isaac's Bar on Ipswich Waterfront as part of Ip-Art. Both audiences and actors were kept moving from space to space as they followed different characters journeys.

In the autumn to mark Black History Month, Eastern Angles teamed up with rising young playwright Janice Okoh to stage Egusi Soup - the story of two sisters as they prepare to travel from London to a family funeral in the Nigerian city of Lagos. This was followed by a series of plays in November and early December which staged under the collective umbrella Platform Peterborough 2009 which explored the city's diverse cultural influences.

We have seen some great touring theatre this year, The Snow Queen at the Theatre Royal, Bury, and Spyski and the Hot Mikado, at the New Wolsey, were all stand out productions but as a general rule, it has to be said, that the best work comes from our theatres own-in-house productions. Long may it continue.