Celebrating our theatrical heritage for World Theatre Day
- Credit: Archant
Celebrations of World Theatre Day gave the perfect cue to put East Anglia’s unique theatrical heritage in the spotlight. Which venues are your favourites?
World Theatre Day is celebrated around the globe. The event was founded by the International Theatre Institute in 1962. Each year the centrepiece is an international message - but this year on March 27 there were five messages, from people from around the world.
To mark the occasion, we’re taking a look at some of East Anglia’s favourite venues, where all kinds of different stage shows can be enjoyed, from Shakespeare to edgy modern dramas, musicals and concerts.
The region has a very strong theatrical tradition, boasting a range of theatres which put on both homegrown and touring professional productions, as well as thriving amateur groups and youth theatre groups.
A number of theatres in the region have faced threats over the decades, hit by trends such as the growth of cinema and TV, only to be saved by local support, with the community coming together to support the venues. This has demonstrated the unique and enduring appeal of live entertainment. Only some of the region’s theatres are featured here, but there are many more which also put on fantastic shows and have strong followings.
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New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
Originally known just as The Wolsey Theatre, this striking building opened in 1979, replacing the former Ipswich Arts Theatre, which is now The Rep pub. It built a fine reputation as a repertory theatre, staging a mix of dramas, comedies and musicals. However, it ran into financial difficulties in 1999 and closed for a time before reopening in 2001 as the New Wolsey. It now stages a mix of touring and in-house productions and also has a thriving studio theatre and youth programme.
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Its most popular annual show is undoubtedly its rock’n’roll pantomime, which has become an Ipswich institution, with tickets being snapped up many months before Christmas.
Paul Geater of Ipswich writes: “One of the best shows I’ve seen was the first ever rock’n’roll panto at the New Wolsey. Cinderella.
I’ve never been a great fan of traditional pantomimes - but this show with the actors forming the band for the music was a sensation.
My children are now in their 20s - but I still go along with my son every year. Last December we went to the 9pm show. We like to book our tickets as soon as they go on sale!”
On Facebook, Charlie Brueton said one of his favourite shows was Oxy And The Morons, a new musical about a punk rock band’s reunion, at the New Wolsey Theatre in 2017, while he also enjoyed Status Quo at the Ipswich Gaumont in 1975. Anna Koryl’s choice was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was staged by The New Wolsey Theatre’s Young Company in 2013 in Ipswich.
As a lifelong lover of theatre, Lynne Mortimer from Ipswich has many memories of both the old Arts Theatre and the New Wolsey, as well as other local venues. Lynne writes: “As a teenager I was a member of a youth theatre group, attached to the local Arts Theatre in Ipswich. This was in 1970 when I was 15, and led to my lifelong love of theatre and a 20-a-day smoking habit – the latter since kicked, thank goodness.
“A trip to Edinburgh in the back of an unfurnished van saw a group of us take a mime session with renowned mime artist and choreographer Lindsay Kemp. Thanks to him, I can still walk through treacle! Seeing Peter Brook’s legendary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream had a huge impact on me with its white box set and minimal approach to stage furniture.
“At Liverpool University, I was secretary of the drama society when a certain Phil Redmond (Grange Hill) was there. With our own theatre to use when we wanted we were able to produce plays at will – the theatre is now a music venue.
“Since then, I have been lucky to be involved in a number of musicals and plays locally… although these days I tend to be cast as the older, comedy character (eccentric housekeeper in Galileo at the New Wolsey, Ipswich, busybody neighbour in To Kill a Mockingbird at the Sir John Mills Theatre; and back in the 80s, the Wicked Witch of the West (typecast again) in Wizard of Oz at the Spa, Felixstowe). My favourite part? Undoubtedly Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady although Petra the maid in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and Amy in Company come close.”
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
The Mercury Theatre opened in 1972, but it followed on from the Colchester Repertory Theatre, founded in 1937, so it has an 80-year history. It is currently carrying out works to improve its site and also creating an archive of its history via the “Mercury Voices” project. This will include programmes, news cuttings, set designs, scripts and other items.
The Mercury welcomes touring shows and also puts on its own homegrown productions under the banner “Made in Colchester”. Forthcoming attractions range from a one-man show celebrating the talents of Norman Wisdom to a new musical, Pieces of String, the world premiere of drama The Be All and End All, and Wuthering Heights - the Music of Kate Bush.
The Mercury also has a flourishing studio theatre and youth theatre.
Ipswich Regent and Corn Exchange
The largest theatre in East Anglia, seating more than 1,550 people, the Regent opened its doors in 1929. At that time it staged both variety shows and films. It later became known as the Gaumont, before returning to its original name,and many top music acts have appeared there from the 1950s onwards, including The Beatles, Buddy Holly, Status Quo and many more.
The theatre was relaunched in September 1991 and now stages a mix of stage shows and concerts. The spring 2018 season includes touring productions like Dusty Springfield musical Son of a Preacher Man and Carole King musical Beautiful, as well as performances by singers including Kim Wilde, Heather Small and comedians such as Bill Bailey.
Many people in the area have fond memories of gigs and shows at the venue. Liz Nice of Bury St Edmunds wrote: “The best show I ever saw was Morrissey at the Ipswich Regent. It was years ago but I still remember it like it was yesterday. He just came out, said not one word of introduction, sang the songs and went. Afterwards, we went out into the carpark at the back and saw him getting on the bus. I yelled out his name and he stopped and put his hand up. It was definitely the best wave of my life! A tiny bit of interaction with my then hero. I live on that.”
On social media, reader Shazza Quinn commented: “Grease at the Regent last year was fantastic,”
The Regent is run together with the Corn Exchange, in the town centre on the Cornhill, where a range of live shows are regularly staged, including concerts and comedy performances.
Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
The only surviving Regency playhouse in Britain, the Theatre Royal was built in 1819, and is the only theatre owned by the National Trust to be open to the public for performances. It was closed from the 1920s to the 1960s, when a community group raised the money to restore and reopen it. The Grade I listed building underwent further works between 2005 and 2007 to restore it to its Regency origins.
The theatre presents a year-round programme including dramas, music, dance and comedy, as well as community activities and behind-the-scenes guided tours. Shows coming up range from Noel Coward’s 1920s comedy Hay Fever to acoustic music from Kiki Dee and Carmelo Luggeri and a Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Norwich Theatre Royal
There has been a theatre on the site ever since 1758, when the “New Theatre in Chapel Field” was built - becoming only the second purpose-built theatre in England. a new theatre was built in the 1820s, then another in the 1930s after the previous building burnt down. The 1,300-seat theatre has since had several refurbishments, including a major £10million revamp in 2007.
The Theatre regularly plays host to West End shows, including musicals and dramas, as well as concerts, workshops and a wide range of other productions. The musical Legally Blonde, which finishes its run today, stars Rita Simons, better-known as Roxy from EastEnders, but its most unusual cast member has to be a dog - and there were auditions to choose the starring pooch! Other performances coming up range from the Russian State Ballet of Siberia to the English Touring Opera to a concert by Irish singing superstar Daniel O’Donnell.
Courtney Pochin of Norwich writes: “The best play I’ve ever seen in the region was an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice by Regent’s Park Theatre. It was performed at Norwich Theatre Royal towards the end of 2016. love Jane Austen and it’s my favourite novel, so I’m always wary of new adaptations but I thought the production was spectacular, very authentic, wonderful cast and the rotating sets were very quirky. I could easily watch it over and over again.”
Norfolk musicals fan Sue McEwan chose her favourite shows in the region as productions of Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, West Side Story (various productions) and Mamma Mia.
This intimate 300-seat riverside theatre opened in 1995, in a building which was originally a Georgian maltings, but had also been a pub and the head office of the Norwich Mercury newspaper, a building merchant’s depot and a Greek restaurant.
The theatre has a merged management agreement with the Theatre Royal, although the programming is kept separate.
The Playhouse has a strong reputation as a comedy venue, while it also stages a wide range of productions including drama, concerts and children’s shows. Forthcoming productions include Norfolk Youth Musical Theatre’s Jane Eyre the Musical, Count Arthur Strong is Alive and Unplugged, and touring production Radio Active, with the original cast of the 1980s radio show, including Angus Deayton.
One of the most famous theatres in the region, this arts complex on the banks of the River Alde is known as one of the main sites of the Aldeburgh Festival. Composer Benjamin Britten decided this would be the ideal place for a concert hall when the festival needed a larger venue, and the Maltings concert hall opened in 1967. The Maltings actually contains four performance venues, with capacities ranging from 70 to the 810-seat concert hall, while other performances also take place in the surrounding area, including churches.
A wide range of concerts and festivals are staged there, including the Snape Proms and annual Christmas Spectacular by the Co-op Juniors Theatre Company, which is the largest amateur theatre group in the UK, based in Ipswich.
Judy Rimmer from Ipswich writes: “I had enjoyed the famous pantos which the Co-op Juniors used to stage at the Ipswich Regent, so, when they changed over to performing a Christmas Spectacular at Snape from 2005 onwards, I was keen to see their new show. The Maltings is a unique venue, with wonderful acoustics and a feeling of getting away from it all, and a perfect setting for the Juniors, although it can be hard to get there in icy weather!
“Spectacular really is the word for their Christmas shows, with huge casts and musical production numbers which would grace the West End. The special effects in the shows I’ve seen were also amazing - and seeing the smallest children in the cast performing with such talent is enough to bring tears to your eyes. I’ve also enjoyed classical and jazz concerts at Snape over the years, and used to go with my daughter to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival there, though sadly this has now been discontinued.”
Spa Pavilion, Felixstowe
After being closed from 2013 to 2015, the Spa reopened to a full house and now puts on a range of shows. The popular venue was built in 1909 and extended in the 1930s. But, after being bombed in the war, it was out of action until it was reopened in 1950.
The Spa is a theatre with its own personality, which has a strong tradition of seaside entertainment including comedy, musicals and variety. All those strands feature in its current programme, with The Good Old Music Hall Days, the Wizard of Oz Easter pantomime and High School Musical among forthcoming shows,
Leo Shavers is chairman of the Good Old Music Hall Days, which recreates classic BBC show The Good Old Days, Leo commented on Facebook ”The Spa Pavilion, Felixstowe, is still going strong.”
Marina Theatre, Lowestoft
The Marina started life as a roller-skating rink, but then the owners put up a makeshift stage and called it ‘The Rink Theatre’. It officially became the Marina in 1897.
Facing a struggle from the 1960s onwards, it closed in 1984 but reopened the following year with a concert by rock star Rick Wakeman - then, when it faced an uncertain future for a second time, it was saved by the foundation of the new Marina Theatre Trust in 2011.
It now puts on a range of shows including West End musicals, top class comedians, plays and other events, as well as the residency of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Marina is known for its annual panto, and this year it will be staging The Pantomime Adventures of Peter Pan, with tickets already being on sale.
Gorleston Pavilion Theatre
An original Edwardian building, the Pavilion Theatre is another of East Anglia’s many attractive theatres on the coast. This year’s Summer Season from May to September will feature song, dance and comedy, with cabaret-style seating and a drinks to your table.
However, unlike many seaside venues, the Pavilion is open all the year round, not only during the summer season, offering a mix of live stage shows and music.
Bill Pertwee, who went on to play ARP Warden Hodges in classic sitcom Dad’s Army, made his professional debut in the summertime season at Gorleston in the 1950s. But he struggled at first and some other cast members called for him to be sacked! However, he stayed on, the rest is history, and today his portrait hangs in the theatre’s foyer.
St George’s Theatre, Great Yarmouth
This historic building in the heart of Great Yarmouth was once a chapel, built in the 18th century and recognised as one of the finest examples of Baroque Church architecture outside of London. It fell into disrepair after the chapel was deconsecreataed in 1959, but the local community rallied round to establish the redundant chapel as a theatre and centre for the arts.
It had to close in 2006 because of structural problems, but was restored and reopened in 2012. It is now open all year round, with a range of shows and other arts events. Forthcoming shows include Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic operetta Pirates of Penzance and a production of Jesus Christ Superstar by St George’s Youth Group.
As well as the theatres featured here, East Anglia also boasts a host of other fine venues. Suffolk theatres include the Quay Theatre in Sudbury, the Apex in Bury St Edmunds, the Sir John Mills Theatre in Ipswich, The Cut in Halesworth and The Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft, to name just a few, while Essex theatre fans can enjoy productions at the West Cliff and Princes Theatres in Clacton, Chelmsford City Theatres and many more.
Norfolk’s theatres range from Sheringham Little Theatre and King’s Lynn Corn Exchange to the Princess Theatre, Hunstanton, the Cromer Pier Pavilion Theatre ... and the list goes on.
There are also many theatrical productions and live music performances which can be enjoyed at festivals in the region, such as Latitude at Henham Park, Southwold, which has just unveiled its top theatre performances for this year in honour of World Theatre Day. These will include Recirquel Contemporary Circus bringing 1930s Paris to life in Paris de Nuit, and Lyric Hammersmith’s all-youth cast performing How to Fail at Being Perfect.
Theatre stars with links to East Anglia
Many leading theatrical stars over the years either come from East Anglia, or have links with the region. They include:
Kerry Ellis - Born in Stowmarket, Suffolk, Kerry is currently celebrating 20 years since her West End debut. She has starred in shows such as We Will Rock You, Oliver!, Cats, My Fair Lady, Miss Saigon, Les Miserables and many more. Kerry will be perofming at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds in May and Norwich Playhouse in June as part of her 20th anniversary tour.
Matt Cardle - X Factor winner Matt grew up in Little Maplestead, near Halstead in Essex. In addition to his pop career, he is also an award-winning West End star, who appeared with Beverley Knight in Memphis.
Sam Clemmett - Norfolk actor Sam won one of the West End’s most coveted roles when he was cast as Albus Severus Potter, son of Harry, in the acclaimed two-part show Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Sam is a former pupil of Thorpe St Andrew High School, and has been back there to talk to drama students and share his experiences.
Ruthie Henshall - Suffolk’s West End singing star, Ruthie, has starred in smash hit musicals such as Cats, Miss Saigon, Crazy For You and many more, as well as appearing in plays and concerts and on TV. She has just returned to the West End to play Mama Morton in Chicago.
Sir John Mills - The legendary actor was born in North Elmham, Norfolk, and grew up at Felixstowe in Suffolk. Although best-known for his film career, he started out as a stage actor and appeared in many stage roles over his career, including performing at the Old Vic during the Second World War. He visited the theatre in Ipswich which bears his name.
Sir John Hurt - The famous actor lived at Cromer in Norfolk. He is best-known for his film work, but also appeared in many stage plays, including Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.
Sir Peter Hall - Born in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, eminent theatre director Sir Peter founded the Royal Shakespeare Company, and was director of the National Theatre. He directed a huge range of productions over almost 50 years.
Sir Trevor Nunn - Former artistic director of the RSC, Sir Trevor was born in Ipswich and is patron of the New Wolsey Theatre in the town. He has returned to direct productions in the town, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2016.