New Wolsey Theatre celebrates tenth anniversary with sparkling production of Guys and Dolls

Where has the time gone? Ten years ago, East Anglian theatregoers had their fingers and – if truth be told – virtually everything else crossed as it was announced that the Wolsey Theatre would be re-opening under the direction of a creative team lured away from Theatre Clywd in Wales.

Sarah Holmes and Peter Rowe came as a partnership on a mission. From the very beginning it was clear that they had a plan for turning around the fortunes of the ailing Ipswich theatre.

The much-loved Wolsey Theatre had closed amid much anger and recrimination 18 months earlier in the summer of 1999. Administrators had been called in after the Arts Council pulled the plug when it became clear that the theatre was in financial difficulty.

As so often happens, Suffolk’s theatregoers didn’t truly appreciate what they had until it was gone. Ipswich, the county town of Suffolk, was without a producing theatre. It seemed unthinkable. Looking back, the despair that many people felt then seems a world away now. We look at the New Wolsey today and we again have a vibrant, thriving theatre – one which is more diverse and far healthier than the Wolsey of old.

The world had changed and sadly the old Wolsey had not changed sufficiently to struggle free of the financial mire that was steadily engulfing it.

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When the news came that the Wolsey would re-open it was greeted with huge sense of relief – particularly as the two people taking over came with a terrific reputation. It didn’t take long for the word to spread that Peter Rowe, the new artistic director, was very keen on musicals. He had worked at the Liverpool Everyman and London’s Bubble Theatre and was in on the ground floor of the actor/musician revolution. He was instrumental in the development of the first huge actor/musician hit the Olivier-winning Return to the Forbidden Planet which he co-directed with the show’s creator Bob Carlton.

Within weeks of Sarah and Peter’s arrival it was announced that the opening production would be an actor/musician production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

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The production that followed was a wonderful statement of intent. In the years that followed we have had an array of hugely successful actor/musician musicals including Leader of the Pack, Sugar, Company, The Good Companions culminating in the world premiere of It’s A Wonderful Life which attracted the attention of former Ipswich schoolboy Sir Trevor Nunn.

Add to these the annual, highly successful rock’n’roll pantomimes and the New Wolsey has developed an outstanding reputation for musical theatre; but this is only part of the equation. Peter has also established a fine reputation for staging a diverse range of classic and contemporary plays – everything from Vincent in Brixton to A Chorus of Disapproval; Neville’s Island to The Day of the Triffids. The New Wolsey has also championed new writing establishing close working relationships with national writers like Roy Williams and Steve Brown.

Sarah and Peter have packed an awful lot into the last ten years and with the rise of PULSE, they continue not only to champion new writers and new companies they are helping develop the New Wolsey as a place where the next generation of writers and directors can hone their craft.

To help celebrate their tenth anniversary Peter Rowe has allowed himself an indulgence. He has raided his bag of desirable shows, productions he

has always wanted to direct, and come up with Guys and Dolls. And if that wasn’t enough, he has cast it from the New Wolsey’s extended family of actor/musician favourites – the closest a theatre can come to a stock company these days. The result is a show that not only bursts with vitality but also feels like a family reunion. When I mention this to Peter, his face lights up because this is exactly the sort of response he was aiming for.

“It’s a show that I have been wanting to do for such a long time and it was a chance to bring together as many of our regulars as we could and do something very special. There are lots of very familiar faces in there, fitting into the parts very well and we have some new people as well.”

He said that he had managed to get funding for 22 actor/ musicians and was delighted not only with the performances but also with the sound coming off the stage. “It’s really rare to have the stage that well populated. When we do Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat it really does feel as if you are in a crowded mission.”

The opening of the play clearly signals the sort of evening that awaits audiences. “At the beginning we make it clear it’s an actor/musician version of the play. The opening is these guys walking on stage to the sound of their own footsteps. They’re wearing dark overcoats, got turned up collars. They look like a heavy hit squad and they look at the audience, put down their instrument cases – everyone assumes they are going to take out weapons but instead the really are instruments. From that point the audience are with us and they launch into the overture.”

Sarah added that the quality of the sound was fantastic because it is coming straight off the stage and wasn’t being deflected or muffled by lots of bodies crammed into an orchestra pit. “The sound is right in your face. The audience is immersed in it and is carried along by it. It’s a joyous experience.”

Peter said that the fact that the overture is played by the actors has given him an opportunity to direct completely new parts of the show. “The overture has been completely animated. We have people rushing here, there and everywhere. Previously you only heard the overture, in our production you actually see it.

“There’s the Runyonland section which is a cartoon sketch of Broadway life. That took us a day-and-a-half to put that together. It’s a show in itself. There’s some incredibly clever stuff happening. The scene is so busy that people don’t really notice that the characters are also

busily swapping instruments.”

He said that the four week rehearsal period was very intensive to get the show as smooth and as busy as it was when it opened at Theatre Clwyd at the end of February. The show is a co-production between Theatre Clwyd, the New Wolsey and the Salisbury Playhouse where the show moves onto after the New Wolsey run is over.

The actors not only have to know their lines and their moves, they also have to know the music back-to-front. It’s a tall order and Peter is thrilled that they have achieved it with ease.

“They all know one another – or know of one another. Many have worked together before, so they have slotted right in. There are parts of the show which are absolutely stunning and really only work in that way when played by a company of actor/musicians.

“The whole Havana sequence is a blast. We have an entire band on stage in the bar. It helps that the actors are well versed in this ensemble work. It means that even if you don’t have a line of dialogue you still bring something to the party.”

Among the familiar names in the cast are Ben Fox as Nathan Detroit, Rosie Jenkins as Miss Adelaide, Laura Pitt-Pulford as Sarah Brown, Kraig Thornber as Harry the Horse, Johnson Willis as Arvide Abernathy and Delroy Brown as Liver Lips Louie.

“A knowledge of that way of working, ensemble work, has paid off in the pinch points when time was tight. People have stayed very calm and patient. Also as its an actor/ musician show, it has a bigger cast and richer sound than if we had to pay a pit band. Not only would the money for cast have been much smaller but also you wouldn’t have got a production of Guys and Dolls where the band was this big. It’s a very big, rich, fat sound when they are all playing.”

Both Peter and Sarah said that this tenth anniversary

production was indeed a distillation of everything that they had wanted to achieve during their time at the New Wolsey and happily they are in no hurry to move on to pastures new.

They agree that ten years in one place does make you look around and take stock of what you are achieving. As Sarah commented: “You don’t want to feel that you are becoming stale. You don’t want to feel you are just going through the motions. But I am still excited by the job. We still have our challenges – not least the upcoming funding review. So there is plenty to occupy my mind.”

For Peter he said that he realises that he is incredibly lucky to have a theatre which offers him the freedom to stage such ambitious shows as Guys and Dolls. Few theatres stage musicals these days, simply because of cost. Not only that Peter also gets to direct classic plays and new work. He regards himself as being extremely fortunate to have found a theatre which offers him the freedom to work in all these different spheres.

“We have those discussions every now and then. We talk about whether Ipswich and the New Wolsey is the right place to be and we always agree that yes it is. I think it is an organisation that is progressive and dynamic. It’s innovative and make no mistake it certainly punches above its weight. Also the ethos of the company, the staffing, the connection with the town is very important to us and have taken a long time to build up and have now put us in a position where we can do some very exciting things.

“Also you have to be wary of the grass is always greener feeling. Who knows if you went somewhere else would you have the freedom and the facilities we enjoy here – probably not.”

Both said that in the future, co-

productions will become increasingly the norm. The New Wolsey has consistently developed plays with other theatres. Sarah said that sharing costs helps give each production a better budget and a longer run which tempts better actors to audition.

Peter added: “I feel that our shows should tour more. More people should know what’s happening in Ipswich and I would like us to go out and tour our productions to other theatres like we are doing for Guys and Dolls or working with other commercial producers as we did with It’s A Wonderful Life.”

Sarah that quality will remain their over-riding consideration. “When programming shows for the New Wolsey, you are never going to get a programme that pleases everybody all-the-time, but I hope that everyone will agree that the work that we stage here is of a high quality. That is what we are judged on. All the work that goes onto the New Wolsey stage should be of the highest quality of its type – regardless of whether everyone likes it.

“We are presenting a very broad programme which appeals to lots of different audiences, so it is important to have a reputation for quality – whether it is home produced or a touring production we have brought in. It’s a question of having built up a level of trust with our varied audiences that come to us now. It is that trust that allows them to take a chance on a show that they do not know but they trust us to have sussed out the production company and they know that they will get a top quality show. We can’t let that slide.”

n Guys and Dolls runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, from March 23 to April 16. Ticket information can be found on or by phoning 01473 295900.

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