What are the New Wolsey's greatest shows? Ipswich theatre celebrates 20th anniversary
- Credit: Mike Kwasniak
Spring is a time for renewal and rebirth. At the end of May, the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich will be opening its doors once again, hoping to put the deprivations of lockdown behind it, and looking forward to a future full of colour, innovation and entertainment.
Turn back the clock 20 years, and in 2001, the New Wolsey Theatre was doing the same thing. After two years of closure, following the collapse of the previous Wolsey Theatre company in 1999, the theatre was reborn as the New Wolsey and guided by two new, but experienced theatre-makers, the husband and wife team of Sarah Holmes and Peter Rowe, who had been enticed away from Theatr Clywd in north Wales, to run the Suffolk theatre.
They brought with them a new vision – a love of actor-musician shows, which manifested itself in the annual rock’n’roll panto and a number of first-rate new musicals (which often tapped into pop music’s extensive back catalogue), along with a love of new writing and a keen ability to breathe new life into less well-known shows which had failed to live up to their promise elsewhere but with a lot of love and little work flourished on the New Wolsey stage.
Sarah and Pete found a home in Suffolk and under their careful stewardship the New Wolsey has blossomed, increasing its audience, boosting its standing on the national stage and now opening its new community annex NW2, strategically placed on its forecourt.
On its opening night chief executive Sarah Holmes described herself as being like “Tigger on Christmas Day. It is so exciting to be in a position of actually re-opening a theatre. It’s taken a lot of hard work.”
Artistic director Peter Rowe had a clear vision for the future on that cold January night. “Everything that happens at the New Wolsey should be of the highest quality, it should be accessible and it should also be incredibly exciting.”
Twenty years down the road, this philosophy still holds true as Sarah Holmes and Peter Rowe re-open the theatre again with The Snow Queen after the enforced closure due to the Covid pandemic.
It’s been an important part of the theatre’s philosophy that it cater for audiences of all ages, interests and backgrounds – everything from Shakespeare (welcoming Trevor Nunn back to Ipswich to stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to fringe theatre (their annual Pulse Festival), from comedy to integrated drama featuring performers with disabilities.
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The New Wolsey has championed disabled performers by forming a production partnership with Graeae theatre company and then took the lead in helping to establish the Ramps on the Moon project. Both projects were incredibly successful at integrating disabled performers into mainstream productions.
With Graeae, the New Wolsey developed the Ian Drury musical Reasons To Be Cheerful, which was originally staged in 2010, was revived in 2012, and ended up being featured in the Special Olympics opening ceremony. The high point of Ramps on the Moon came with a critically acclaimed revival of the Pete Townsend musical Tommy which then went on a UK tour after its Ipswich run.
During the past 20 years, the New Wolsey have showcased some amazing shows, many of them homegrown, they have created a new tradition for the rock’n’roll pantomime, but what are my favourite shows out of the hundreds of performances?
After a lot of head scratching and sorting through old programmes: these are my favourite shows from the New Wolsey’s 21st century back catalogue.
Sweeney Todd (2001)
They started as they were destined to go on by creating a hugely atmospheric production of Stephen Sondheim’s ambitious, gothic musical about the demon barber of Fleet Street.
Leader of the Pack (2003)
The first of Peter Rowe’s revamped musicals that had been left on the sidelines of popular theatre. This wonderful show celebrated the work of songwriter Ellie Greenwich and her collaboration with renegade producer Phil Spector. Peter Rowe worked both as director and script doctor. The result was a slice of theatrical magic.
Two years later, Peter Rowe demonstrated that his knack for resurrecting forgotten shows was no-fluke, when he took this re-worked version of the Marilyn Monroe classic Some Like It Hot and turned into a great night of theatre.
Neville’s Island (2004)
This darkly funny play by Tim Firth, rejoiced in a set that not only featured sand, trees and running water but also blurred the lines where the stage ended and the auditorium began. The New Wolsey production was also remarkable for giving audiences to see a different side to Eastern Angles comic actor Julian Harries who was successfully cast in an against type tragic role.
Laurel and Hardy (2008)
Classic cinema transferred to the stage – which presented a look at the life and career of two of Hollywood’s greatest comedians. Stan and ollie were carefully brought to life by actors Ben Fox and Christian Patterson. The result was laughter with some gentle understanding.
Little Shop of Horrors (2008)
One of the great rock’n’soul musicals where a jive-talking carnivorous plant steals the limelight from the human actors but nevertheless a dazzling production.
It’s A Wonderful Life (2009)
The New Wolsey’s first world premiere and an adaptation of the classic James Stewart Christmas movie. It had heart and pathos without ever becoming too sentimental. A brilliant evening which proved that theatre and cinema are different beasts but are equally engaging.
Noises Off (2010)
One of theatres greatest farces and the New Wolsey demonstrated their performance abilities by creating a side-splitting production. Fast, furious and above all very, very funny.
20th Century Boy (2011)
The story of Marc Bolan, the T-Rex front man. This was another of Pete Rowe’s rescue projects after the production fell by the wayside at another theatre. After a sell-out run at the New Wolsey, the revised production was staged at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and is currently looking for a home in the West End.
Guys and Dolls (2011)
A 10th anniversary super-production of the West End classic which brought together many of the New Wolsey's regular actor-musicians in a joyfully ambitious co-production with Theatr Clwyd. The song Sit Down Your Rockin' The Boat brought the house to its feet every night.
Our House (2013)
The Madness musical from the pen of author Tim Firth managed to merge a greatest hits collection of songs with a cracking story of life on the wrong side of the tracks. Brilliant.
Miss Nightingale (2014)
A touching mix of drama, musical and burlesque show set in London during the dark days of the Blitz. This show, developed in Suffolk, had two outings at the New Wolsey and then had a further life at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds before heading off for a London run. It managed to be both irreverent and very affecting.
This Is My Family (2014)
Yet another new Tim Firth play which the New Wolsey developed in conjunction with Sheffield theatres. Daniel Evans directed this touching show which took an engaging, truthful look at family life with West End actress Clare Burt as Yvonne the Mum.
Our Blue Heaven (2018)
A slice of local history brought to life on the New Wolsey stage. The story of Ipswich Town Supporters following their team to victory at Wembley in the FA Cup in 1978. Written by Peter Rowe from the memories of supporters this was a brilliantly realised piece of community theatre.
Once (2018 & 2020)
A brilliant actor-musician ensemble production of the West End hit featuring Daniel Healy and Emma Lucia as Guy and The Girl. The New Wolsey production, directed by Pete Rowe, gave the story a much more intimate feel when compared to the rather more showy London production. This new version of the show was so successful that it was revived for a nationwide tour when Covid closed down the nation’s theatres.
The Season (2019)
The last hurrah before lockdown. The New Wolsey was a sponsor of the Stiles and Drewe mentorship award for new musicals and so were given the opportunity to develop the winning entry by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan for the stage. The result was a two-hander Christmas treat with bags of heart, some great comedy, some beautiful songs and hopefully a new life on the West End stage.
So what are your favourite shows?