Ipswich theatre celebrates milestone

The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich is celebrating its fifth birthday. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to theatre chiefs Sarah Holmes and Peter Rowe about the Wolsey's transformation from bankrupt building to a vibrant highly successful theatre.

By Andrew Clarke

The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich is celebrating its fifth birthday. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to theatre chiefs Sarah Holmes and Peter Rowe about the Wolsey's transformation from bankrupt building to a vibrant highly successful theatre.

It's difficult to believe but this weekend sees the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich celebrating its fifth anniversary with a spectacular birthday extravaganza weekend which reunites the casts of a dozen hit productions.

The show is the brainchild of the theatre producing team Sarah Holmes and Pete Rowe, the architects of the theatre's rebirth after the old company was forced into receivership and the theatre was closed for 18 months.


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“It's been an amazingly quick five years,” said Sarah, “I can hardly believe that we welcomed our first customers through the doors five years ago this week. It was the result of a long hard slog to get the theatre redecorated, the foyer remodelled, relit, the cast rehearsed and the set built. We opened with the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd - which is an ambitious show to do but we wanted to use as a statement of intent.

“It was an in-house show and we wanted it to show the Wolsey audiences who had been waiting patiently for the theatre to re-open that they could expect quality shows that were both diverse and accessible.”

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During the past five years the New Wolsey has presented a wide-ranging programme which has included classic revivals, cutting-edge drama, top quality touring shows, new writing, urban dance, but the theatre has established a reputation for delivering top quality musicals which featuring a highly talented company of actor/musicians who are also utilised for their sell-out rock'n'roll pantomimes which have changed the face of Christmas in Suffolk.

In February 2001 Sweeney Todd set the tone and a high quality watermark for what was going to follow. Over the years New Wolsey audiences have been treated to such musical gems as The Leader of the Pack, The Good Companions, Company, Pal Joey and recently the superb Sugar.

It is from these glittering shows that director Peter Rowe has drawn both songs and cast for the weekend birthday party shows being held at The New Wolsey. “The wonderful but terrifying thing about these two shows is that it's a moveable feast. Part of the fun of the occasion is that it going to be very much a rough and ready, seat-of-the pants look back at some of our most successful shows. The scary part is not knowing exactly who is going to be there and what they are going to be doing.”

Sarah said that the production has been in the planning stage for the last six months but because actors are busy working all over the country getting them to the Wolsey for just two nights has been a very tricky operation.

“When we thought about what we could do to mark our fifth birthday, I think the idea of a greatest hits birthday party was the only real option. What we wanted to do was not only revisit all the songs from all the shows but get the casts back to perform them.”

Peter added: “We always knew it was going to be a difficult trick to pull off simply because of the busy lives that actors lead. They obviously couldn't tell us last October where they'd be in February this year. They didn't know where they would be working or if they would be available and some of the people still don't know whether they'll be here or not. It changes by the hour even at this late stage.

“Obviously at some point we have to say this is what we are going to do otherwise we will have nothing ready and while we would prefer to have the original actor to perform the song, in some circumstances this won't be the case but all the showstoppers will be in the programme whether the original actors are available or not.”

Sarah added that despite the confusion surrounding the availability of actors no-one has turned them down. “It's been wonderful that so many of the actors that have worked at the New Wolsey over the last five years have wanted to come back and join in with our celebrations. No-one has turned us down. Several people can't be with us because they are performing in other shows around the country but some of these are travelling back to Ipswich on Sunday, forgoing their day off, to take part in our Sunday show which will be different from Saturday's show.”

Peter said that each performance would be unique and feature different songs and performers.

Sarah said that looking back over the last five years was sobering in the fact that they had covered so much ground in so short a time. “I think our biggest achievement is not reclaiming the old audience, which was important but not the be all and end all, but going out there and discovering four of five new, different audiences. If you look at our mailing list now, 70% of it is new names, people we didn't inherit from the previous theatre - which is no mean achievement.

“The world had changed a great deal during the Wolsey's time of closure and also during its final years under the old regime. There is no longer one core audience for theatre - but four, five, six audiences - of different interests, age groups and backgrounds and we have to cater for them all. That's why it's been difficult to offer a real subscription service until recently because the diversity of the shows makes it difficult to offer them all as single package.

“What we have done is say trust us. We will ensure the quality and ensure each and every production is accessible to a general audience and ask audiences to give it a try. I totally understand that not everyone will like everything because so much of it is down to experience and personal taste but I hope no-one will find the quality lacking and hopefully you will discover something that you never knew you liked before.”

She said that trust takes a long time to build up and a short time to destroy which is why New Wolsey programmes are put together with great care. “Five years on I feel that our audiences do trust us as our audience figures show. We have been playing to an average of 70% attendance during the last five years.”

She said that putting the money they had to spend on the stage endeared them to the audiences. “They can see where the ticket money and the grant money are going. It's ending up on the stage. Co-productions with other theatres have allowed us to be more ambitious than we would otherwise be able to be. We can stage large cast musicals or technically complicated shows like Neville's Island or The Day of the Triffids. As a theatre I think we are punching above our weight and local audiences are the beneficiaries.”

Peter added: “People forget now but the theatre was completely moribund when we arrived. Costumes had been just dumped on the stage. There was a hole in the roof, lights had been just left whenever someone had put them down. There was dust everywhere. Nothing had been touched for 18 months. It was just like the Marie Celeste. It was a real struggle to not only get the show rehearsed but also get the theatre ready.”

Sarah said that the hard work had been very worthwhile because it was immediately apparent from the opening night that the theatregoers of East Anglia had taken the New Wolsey to their hearts.

Peter said that looking back five years on they were very proud of the fact that they and all their staff had turned a dark, deserted theatre into a leading venue. “Suddenly the Wolsey Theatre has been turned from a neglected building into a healthy, thriving, progressive concern. Our audiences have grown and it is clear that by and large they like what we are doing.”

Sarah said that when they arrived more than five years ago and set about rebuilding the theatre they had a set of guidelines from the funding authorities - principally Arts Council East, Suffolk County Council and Ipswich Borough Council, about what was required. The first order of business was the transforming of the Wolsey from a rep theatre into a commissioning theatre. However, Sarah and Pete bid for the job on the basis that the Wolsey wouldn't become merely a receiving theatre taking touring shows. The opportunity to create their own work is part of what drew the pair to Ipswich from Theatre Clwyd in Wales.

“The key to all our work is quality, diversity and accessibility. That's the cornerstone on which everything we've done here has been built.”

Apart from the main productions the New Wolsey have pioneered the development of new talent with their annual summer Pulse Festival which has since been adopted and used as a template by Arts Council East for their Escalator and East to Edinburgh schemes which help young performers develop the skills to turn professional and present shows as part of the Edinburgh Festival.

They have also pioneered a range of educational work which has proved to be so such a high standard that they have been staged in the main theatre for a couple of nights after theatergoers complained that they were missing out on a good thing.

“The development of children's work has been a real joy. It started off simply as a low key Saturday morning kids club and has just grown and grown. Now we are running a children's programme all year round - putting it a full week of programme's during school holidays and I believe we are one of very few theatres that stage an alternative to panto for pre-school children.

“That has been a huge hit. We have done it for three years now and it has really been embraced by audiences. When we first suggested it several people raised their eyebrows and thought it strange to provide an alternative to something that was already child-friendly. But a lot of people forget that panto for very young children can be very overwhelming - certainly a panto like ours which is very loud and very colourful.”

The Theatre has also embraced ethnic audiences and productions which had been previously regarded as specialist areas and have absorbed them into the heart of the programme. The musical Passports To The Promised Land, Blues For Mr Charlie and Little Sweet Thing by National Theatre playwright Roy Williams have been huge successes with mainstream audiences.

And what do they think is the secret of their success? Sarah says: “I think the theatre occupies a special place not only in the hearts of its audience but also in the hearts of the actors who perform here. You can see that by the number who are returning here this weekend. The Wolsey stage is the real heart of the theatre. It's a lovely space for both actor and audience alike. The audience is close to the action on stage and the actors can make contact everyone in the audience. It's a wonderfully intimate space and that allows magic to happen.”

Still to come in the New Wolsey Theatre's fifth birthday season is a new stage adaptation of Moby Dick, a revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives, a multi-cultural version of Chekhov's Three Sisters, a rare performance of the Arthur Miller play The Price and a new play by comedy master John Godber Wrestling Mad.

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