Oh, I do like a good play beside the seaside...

You can’t always guarantee the weather but Southwold Summer Theatre has been a consistently bright spot in Suffolk’s seaside experience for the past 28 years.

The company was founded by Jill Freud in 1984 and is now considered a major attraction for both locals and visitors to the Suffolk coastal strip.

Seasons of classic plays and one-off Sunday entertainments quickly made their mark and were popular enough to persuade Jill, in 1995, to expand the company in order to stage a complementary season of plays in Aldeburgh.

In the beginning Aldeburgh simply took the plays which had started life in Southwold but very quickly it became apparent that a second team of actors was required and they started premiering shows in the Jubilee Hall.

For the past 20 years the company has been swapping productions between the two towns and playing to sell-out audiences.

It was always a source of quiet pride to Jill Freud that all this had been achieved without a single penny of Arts Council money – although she did admit that, in the early years in particular, husband Sir Clement Freud worked tirelessly in the background, drumming up sponsorship from local businesses.

Also, in the early days, Jill used to turn her home in Walberswick over to the company – hosting and feeding a dozen people while the sets were being constructed in the barn next door. Today, Southwold and Aldeburgh Summer Theatres are a Suffolk institution – they are part of our summer experience.

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But this year represents something of a quiet milestone. Although Jill Freud is still a member of the acting company, this will be the first season she hasn’t programmed.

Although she may not have her hand on the tiller, there are still plenty of familiar faces to make sure the programme has that consistent and familiar feel.

Long-term directors Tony Falkingham and Mark Sterling, both 20-year veterans, and new boy Peter Adshead, clocking up a mere six years in Jill’s production team, along with resident set designer Maurice Rubens, will ensure that to the outside world it’s business as usual.

“I’m sure that things will gradually change over time but we’re not planning any great revolutions. It’s very much Southwold Summer Theatre as it has always been,” said Peter.

“It was Jill’s choice to take a step back from the organisation of the season but she didn’t want to make a big song and dance about it. It’s been an on-going process. I suppose it’s been a gradual hand-over during the last three or four years – Tony, Mark and myself have taken on a little more each year and now we have programmed our first season.”

As usual the season is a mix of comedy and traditional British drama. Peter said: “After people have had a lovely day on the beach, or a day dodging the showers, the last thing they want is to be lectured with a political diatribe or to be faced with a season of Pinter or Chekhov. What we are about – and what Jill Freud has always been about – is offering good, solid entertainment.

“We know what our audiences like and we would be fools if we said: ‘Okay, Jill’s gone. Right! Let’s change everything.’ We hope that no-one notices that there has been a changeover.”

The 2012 season starts this week with Dave Freeman’s saucy comedy A Bed Full of Foreigners, which is swiftly followed by Write Me A Murder by Frederick Knott – author of Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder, which is then balanced by Richard Harris and Leslie Darbon’s fast-paced farce Two and Two Make Sex, before audiences are treated to a new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s greatest horror story, The Curse of Dracula. The season then draws to a close with Five Finger Exercise by Peter Shaffer.

All the plays will be staged at St Edmund’s Hall, Southwold, and The Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh.

“We are successful because we know our audience. Personally, I would love to take tours out to other venues – let other people have a taste of the highly professional summer theatre that we have here in Suffolk.

“Some people, in the past, thought that Southwold Summer Theatre was a group of enthusiastic amateurs getting up on stage and putting on a show. Those people cannot have been more wrong.” Southwold Summer Theatre, now re-named Suffolk Summer Theatre, is about a professional company, using professional actors, directors and technicians, to put on top-quality, professional stage shows.

He said that the line-up of a season was decided by himself, Tony and Mark sitting down and reading plays non-stop from September to December. “There’s no other way of doing it. You sit down and you read and keep on reading, and then we have a discussion between ourselves about which ones we think will work best – which ones will appeal to our audiences.”

He added that in the last two years London’s West End has started to mirror a typical Suffolk Summer Theatre season, with revivals of plays by Terence Rattigan, JB Priestley, Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde.

“In times of recession people want wit, humour and entertainment. They want good stories which are well told, and these classic writers deliver this.

“We are very much in tune with the times. For example, I was considering doing Doctor In The House this year. I pulled the script off the shelf in September and thought: ‘This hasn’t been done for a while’ and was all set to put it forward for this year’s season when I discovered that the promoter Bill Kenwright was sending it out on tour. It’s a case of great minds think alike. It all goes back to the fact that people want entertainment – particularly in tough times like a recession.”

He said that plays become classics because they can withstand repeated performances and re-staging over many years. “Once five or six years have passed we wouldn’t rule out re-doing a play that we have done before – if it was the right play.

“Audiences change – there are always new audiences who haven’t seen these plays before and many who would love to see them again. For example, take Gaslight; we did that three years ago, but it’s such a fantastic, well-written play that you could dust it down and do it every six years and no-one would mind. It’s got such great atmosphere and keeps people on the edge of their seats – it’s a real crowd-pleaser and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

He said that although there were many familiar faces in the company, open casting is carried out each spring with a view to casting the entire season. The idea is to have a wide range of ages in the cast and instead of casting just one play they are looking to create a company which can fill all the roles across a diverse season.

“We have many people who come back because they like the opportunities that appearing in Suffolk Summer Theatre affords them.

“They like the camaraderie and the fact that you can play a wide range of parts during the course of two months. We never cast people simply because they have worked with us before. You have to cast the right people for the shows you’ve got. We are looking for versatility.

“When we are auditioning we might ask a familiar face to do something different, just so we can see what kind of range they have. For example: if they were a vicar last time, we may get them to audition for the role of a dangerous criminal or a cockney market trader. We know they can play a sweet, gentle well-spoken man, so let’s see them do something really different.”

Tony emerges from rehearsal to hear our last remark and adds an observation of his own, pointing out that, when he started acting, an important part of a young actor’s training was watching more experienced performers rehearse.

“You picked up a lot just by being in the company of older, talented actors and just spent time talking to them and watching them work.

“It’s almost impossible to replicate that experience now. The days of rep are long gone and this is the closest you are likely to get.”

He said that at any one time they are likely to have three productions on the go – one in Southwold, one in Aldeburgh and one in rehearsal.

Both Peter and Tony believe that the success of Suffolk Summer Theatre lies not only in the fact that they are offering professional theatre but also in the fact that they are offering something which is born out of the community.

Tony said: “Summer theatre has always been about giving local people first-class theatre right on their doorstep. We offer the plays that Suffolk people enjoy. The actors live and work in the community, become part of the community for the summer, and people respect that.

“The theatre becomes part of the town’s identity. When we started in Aldeburgh they didn’t want just to have a production that had already played in Southwold, they wanted to have their own plays too, so we found a way to make that happen by creating a second company. That’s the perfect example of a town influencing how we go about delivering theatre. Theatre has to be part of the community, otherwise it doesn’t work.”

Peter added that he has become so enamoured of the area that he moved to Suffolk. “Two years ago I moved to Reydon because I wanted to be part of the community here in north Suffolk and build greater links between the theatre and the local people.

“I still do a big drive around the area, delivering posters and leaflets, because it makes it personal. It is contact with a real human being – it creates a relationship with local businesses with local people. It shows them that we are indeed part of the community; part of the town.”

He said that apart from a spell in Newbury, from November to January, performing in panto, Suffolk Summer Theatre consumes two thirds of his year.

“As soon as I am back in January, we are finishing up programming the season, the first press releases go out, we start casting, then we are delivering posters and leaflets, sorting out set designs, more casting, then before we know it rehearsals are upon us. Then it’s the season, then September to November it’s doing the books, the post-production clear-up, reading new plays for next year. Then it’s panto and then we’re back in January again.”

He said the appeal of summer theatre has meant that audiences are prepared to travel from Greater London and south Essex to attend shows.

“We pull in audiences from a very wide area, which is hugely gratifying, but it never pays to be complacent because there is no such thing as a sure-fire hit.

“We did Far From The Madding Crowd last year, which was a great production which looked good on paper, and yet proved to be a difficult sell – we just about broke even – why I don’t know. It just goes to prove that sometimes things just don’t appeal – for whatever reason.

“This is why we work so hard to make sure our audiences trust us – and that’s so important – and we would never do anything to abuse that trust. When our audience hand over their �12.50 for a ticket they know they are going to be entertained.”

• Suffolk Summer Theatre runs at St Edmunds Hall, Southwold, and Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, until September 15.

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