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Defiant message from New Wolsey bosses as Ipswich theatre cancels Panto

PUBLISHED: 11:46 06 August 2020 | UPDATED: 16:15 06 August 2020

New Wolsey Theatre managers are confident they can weather the storm caused by the coronavirus but a return to performances in the main auditorium is some way off. Picture: NEW WOLSEY THEATRE

New Wolsey Theatre managers are confident they can weather the storm caused by the coronavirus but a return to performances in the main auditorium is some way off. Picture: NEW WOLSEY THEATRE

New Wolsey Theatre

We’ll be back! That’s the defiant message from bosses at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre which has announced the cancellation of its Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto and autumn season – and warned that it is starting consultations on job losses.

The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich has been forced to cancel its pantomime and autumn season - but work is continuing on developing the new Theatre Square. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNThe New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich has been forced to cancel its pantomime and autumn season - but work is continuing on developing the new Theatre Square. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

The theatre has been forced into the move because of uncertainty about when live theatre can resume – and what form it can take if social distancing will need to be maintained in the way of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However it went into the crisis in good shape back in March – and managers are confident it will be able to bounce back once live theatre is able to return.

And it will have more facilities – work to create a new theatre square in front of the building on Civic Drive is now nearing completion, with the construction of a new creative and education centre and landscaping to turn it into a more social area and with an outdoor performance space.

Shirley Darroch as Fairy Aubergine in rock 'n' roll panto Jack and the Beanstalk at the New Wolsey in 2010 - the theatre has been forced to cancel this year's production. Picture: MIKE KWASNIAKShirley Darroch as Fairy Aubergine in rock 'n' roll panto Jack and the Beanstalk at the New Wolsey in 2010 - the theatre has been forced to cancel this year's production. Picture: MIKE KWASNIAK

MORE: New Wolsey finds a new way to reach an audience

Chief executive Sarah Holmes said one of the most frustrating aspects was the feeling that the situation was totally outside the theatre’s control: “We simply don’t know when we’ll be able to have a live audience in again without social distancing and that makes it very hart to plan ahead.

“We’re not the only sector to be in this position, but it is very difficult not knowing what is going to happen – we plan productions two or three years in advance but you can’t do that.”

About 40% of the staff at the New Wolsey are part of the consultation process about their jobs. That is about 23 full and part-time employees.

The  New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. Photo CARL LAMBThe New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. Photo CARL LAMB

Ms Holmes said it was the uncertainty about the future, combined with the beginning of the end of the Government’s Furlough scheme, that had forced the theatre to make drastic decisions at this time.

It is the cancellation of the shows, especially the pantomime that is crucial for the theatre’s year, that has hit the theatre hardest.

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Sue Lawther-Brown from the New Wolsey said: “That is the cornerstone of our year and the revenue it brings in is very important for the theatre. We know a huge number of people come to see that and it is very disappointing to have to make this decision, but there was no alternative.”

One Man, Two Guvnors, a much-loved modern farce, an adaptation of the classic A Servant of Two Masters, was the opening production of the New Wolsey theatre's autumn season last year Photo: Mike KwasniakOne Man, Two Guvnors, a much-loved modern farce, an adaptation of the classic A Servant of Two Masters, was the opening production of the New Wolsey theatre's autumn season last year Photo: Mike Kwasniak

Uncertainty about when live theatre can resume – and what kind of social distancing would be required when it does restart – has forced the theatre into this decision and the there is little indication about when live shows might be able to resume.

At the start of the year everything looked good for the theatre.

“At the start of the crisis we were in a good position, probably in a better place financially than many other similar theatres,” she said.

“But you cannot carry on with no income indefinitely so we had to make some difficult decisions.

Kate Robson-Stuart as Reza and Sean Kingsley as Billy in the New Wolsey Theatre's production of Once Photo: Mike KwasniakKate Robson-Stuart as Reza and Sean Kingsley as Billy in the New Wolsey Theatre's production of Once Photo: Mike Kwasniak

“But we are confident we will be able to come back. There is no threat to our existence – but we will have to change the way we operate to some extent.”

The original Wolsey Theatre company collapsed into administration in 1999 and the Civic Centre building was dark for nearly two years before the New Wolsey Theatre was formed with chief executive Sarah Holmes and artistic director Peter Rowe at the helm.

Ms Lawther-Brown said there was no danger of a repeat of that – once theatres were able to reopen, the New Wolsey would be ready to prepare its next production.

The annual pantomime has been a feature of the theatre’s calendar ever since it reopened in 2001 after being closed for nearly two years because of financial problems.

This year’s production was due to be Jack and the Beanstalk. It is a show that attracts audiences of all ages (there is even a late-evening show aimed at adults) and for many it is their only visit to the theatre in a year. The Ipswich Regent and Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds are yet to reach a decision on whether their pantos will go forward.

Staff at the New Wolsey have been heartened by the public response to the news of the cancellations. Ms Lawther-Brown said: “We have been overwhelmed by the messages we have been receiving since the news about the cancellations and job threats became known. There is clearly a great deal of love for the theatre out there.”

The new developments might allow some socially-distanced work to start again and possibly even some outdoor performances – but the reopening of the main auditorium is still some way away.


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