Eastern Angles to mark 30 years on the road

Ivan Cutting is a happy man. He is just putting the finishing touches to a major anniversary celebration for next year.

Two major productions, drawn from regional history and folklore, will form the centrepiece for celebrations which will mark the 30th birthday of Eastern Angles, the regional touring theatre company.

Ivan will be staging a brand new production of the much-loved play Margaret Catchpole in the Hush House at RAF Bentwaters and before than embarking on an extensive tour of his new play Private Resistance.

“Some people may say that we haven’t progressed but I would argue that we have. We have evolved – we have expanded and developed what we do – but we still deliver what it says on the tin.

“Some companies come unstuck when they say: ‘We’re doing such and such, but we really want to be doing this in five years time.’ We have never been like that. We nailed our colours to the mast fairly early on. We said: ‘This is what we are going to do’. But we have found various different ways of doing it and different ways of delivering it and that is what has kept it fresh.

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“Yes, we have been given some challenges along the way but fundamentally we still stand by our manifesto that we first declared 30 years ago – which is four things.

“One is to do good theatre, two is to promote new writing or perform original work, three is to have a regional flavour and four is to tour the region with a particular interest in non-professional venues, places like village halls and community centres.”

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He added that a fifth proviso was included later, which was to achieve renown. The fact that Eastern Angles remains a beloved part of our cultural heritage is a testament to their success.

Ivan said that the feedback they receive from local communities after a tour is a heart-warming endorsement of their work. Even the late John Peel was moved to sing their praises in his column in the Radio Times during the late 1990s.

Even though Eastern Angles was created to provide a vital cultural lifeline to rural areas, no-one could guess at the extent of their loyal following when the company was first founded in 1982.

“A lot of people are uneasy when you use phrases like ‘new writing’. They think it is difficult, unsettling and not for them. But we have been very successful at doing shows which are nearly always ‘new writing’ but people don’t see them as such because they are based very much on stories which arise out of the area.

“When we first created the company we realised that there aren’t many plays about this area so we have had to go out and get them written. It’s approaching new writing from a different perspective. I think stories are at the heart of it. We are, after all, a storytelling theatre.”

He said that regional touring provides their bread and butter but every now and then Ivan gets the urge to make a big set-piece statement, which is usually tied into to an anniversary or a major milestone.

Again these are very much-based on local legend or have a solid basis in the locality. The Wuffings, staged at Notcutts nursery warehouse at Wickham Market, told the story of the Saxon King Raedwald who is believed to be buried at Sutton Hoo while We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea was the visualisation of Arthur Ransome’s sailing adventure set at Pin Mill and Felixstowe and Bentwater Roads, performed at The Hush House, the USAF engine testing facility on the former airbase, was a tale about the local people who had lived on the site over the centuries and examined the pull the area has on people.

Ivan said that East Anglia makes a strong attachment to people’s hearts and Suffolk’s allure is stronger still.

This appeal was very noticeable when Ivan, then recently graduated from the University of Bristol, teamed up with a group of friends to provide the area with its first truly local touring theatre company. Based in a hut at Martlesham Heath, they created a company initially to give themselves work.

“I have always been interested in locality. It was about telling stories in a different way. It was about reviving the idea of theatre appearing in village halls.

“I was very aware that there were companies in other parts of the country delivering work that wasn’t available round here.”

In November 1982, Ivan Cutting, Jan Farmery, David Caddick, Lawrence Werber, Pat Whymark and Kevin Peacock got together to create a theatre company under auspices of the Manpower Services Commission.

Ivan Cutting phoned up friend David Caddick about starting a rural touring theatre company. Caddick contacted fellow friend Jan Farmery, who was working with the Wolsey Theatre. The last of the founders on board was dentist-turned actor Lawrence Werber who was swiftly joined by young musician and actress Pat Whymark to become the group’s musical director.

Although Pat no longer works on every show, she was the Eastern Angles music director for most of the company’s 30 years and still contributes to productions.

The first proper show the group did was Marsh Fever – the tale of East Anglia phantom dog Black Shuck – and it proved to be an immediate hit.

Ivan said that the blueprint for Eastern Angles was there from the beginning and still remains the same. The plays are either written in-house or are commissioned from local writers, which also gives the productions that authentic local feel. Marsh Fever was quickly followed by When The Boats Come In and No Song, No Supper.

Ivan maintains there is no formula to their work but they are given a lot freedom by their audiences because a strong element of trust has grown up over the years.

It’s something they don’t take for granted and for which there’s no short-cut.

Over the years Eastern Angles have tackled a wide range of topics including tales of Americans in East Anglia in Goodbye America and Crossroad Blues, the story of the East Anglian fishing industry in When The Boats Come In, the ’53 floods in Beneath The Waves, tale of the fens in Waterland, archaeological excavations in The Sutton Hoo Mob and a multi-part look at the changing nature of rural life in shows like The Reapers Year, Days of Plenty, The Bone Harvest, The Tithe War and Return To Akenfield.

Ivan has also consciously avoided some subjects because they looked rather too obvious.

It took him many years to tackle such famous regional characters as Margaret Catchpole and Boudicca because they were such well-known figures. Once he persuaded himself that Eastern Angles should tackle these historic titans, it was their personalities, rather than the iconic stories, that became his entry point.

Good theatre is about people and this has always been Ivan’s approach. In Boudicca’s Babes, he asked the question: “Why did this previously peaceful tribe go on the rampage?”

Similarly, he looked at the reasons for Margaret Catchpole to transform herself from an ordinary domestic servant with the Cobbold family into a daring rebel who made an amazing horse ride to London.

In fact, Ivan’s investigation into Margaret revealed enough information to turn into two plays and Ivan produced a sequel Margaret Down Under which looked at Margaret’s life after she was transported to Australia.

In this 30th anniversary year he said that once again they will be tapping into the very foundations of Eastern Angles’ values with two high profile productions.

The roots of Private Resistance are to be found in a series of interviews that Ivan conducted in 1984 with old farm workers, fishermen and people who lived in countryside.

These interviews have provided the foundation for a wide range of shows which have looked at various aspects of East Anglian life over the years.

“I didn’t want to do pure documentaries so I started integrating fictional characters into documentary-based stories. It made a much stronger impact and suited more people’s tastes.

“Private Resistance is a play which came from a set of interviews I did for On The Home Front I was talking to this chap who I thought served in The Home Guard and he said: ‘No I was with this extra special group called the auxiliary unit and we dug this underground bunker and were supposed to go down there when the Germans invaded and come up and fight behind enemy lines.

“At the time it felt quite extraordinary and I have had that ringing around in my brain for the last 20 years. I have always felt that we should do something more about that and we have finally got the opportunity.”

He said that Private Resistance is a fictional story but is based on fact – on the evidence provided by those original interviews and by talking to local historians and museums like the one at Parham that preserve much of our wartime heritage.

“As with all our plays it is about people. It tells the story of a young lad who’s in the scouts, an older guy who is a gamekeeper who is going to be in the auxiliary units, a doctor’s wife who is looking after her sister’s son and her brother-in-law who is the guy who is going to be organising the auxiliary unit.

“It’s about how the war brought together all these disparate groups of people. It’s that combination of the right characters, the place and the opportunity. Also there is threat because Private Resistance works as a ‘What If…’ scenario. What if the Germans had invaded after Dunkirk? What would have happened?

“We have assumed that the Germans have taken control of the countryside and we look at how the individuals would have coped. What form would the resistance would have taken? We assume they would have staged secretive guerrilla style attacks on lines of communication. The reprisals would have been pretty awful and therefore some people may have wanted the resistance to stop.

“Then we move forward several years to see what would have happened in the long term – looking at the different forms of resistance and seeing how people would fall into tasks that they never expected to do. It’s not always the case that the ones who made the most noise before hand would be the ones that took it forward – nor was it always the quiet ones who sat around and did nothing.”

Ivan said that one of the interesting aspects of the auxiliary units was that one sleeper cell did not know of the existence of any other units. That way the whole organisation could not be compromised.

“One man was recruited and trained and then given the task of recruiting another five or six individuals for that unit. They were trained in the use of sticky bombs and how to kill someone silently. Some of them were in the home guard but then dropped out which did create some resentment in the local villages.”

He said that it was clear that the locals could not openly take up arms against the German occupiers. “In a straight fire-fight they would lose. So I looked at the French, Jersey and Guernsey example and drew parallels from there.”

One of the most fascinating stories he discovered focused on envelopes that were given to the team leaders which contained secret orders. “Some people opened those envelopes after the war and found that they would have had to kill the chief constable because he was one of the few people who knew who was who.”

The other major event in Ivan’s calendar next year is a re-staging of Margaret Catchpole which will be allowed to really take flight in the surroundings of the Bentwaters Hush House in the summer.

It’s a completely new production with a new Margaret. “It’s a tale of smugglers and the hidden economy. Also it’s a love story and her horse-ride to London to save her lover is comparable to any Olympic feat. It’s an extraordinary achievement by anyone’s standards.

“The thing about Margaret Catchpole is that it is essentially an East Anglian tale. It is very Suffolk. It is about the land and it is essentially a celebration about everything that is great about this area with a passionate heroine at its centre “

Private Resistance is on tour in the spring.

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