Putting Suffolk’s communities first

As regular readers of the EADT are probably aware, I am a huge fan of Eastern Angles, the rural touring theatre group, who for the past 30 years have been bringing top-quality theatre to small towns and villages.

What can be better than having theatre brought to your doorstep? Having live theatre, music, dancing and art exhibitions in your neighbourhood helps create a sense of community – brings a sense of cohesion to a town. Community arts are just as important as the pub, local school or village store and post office.

They provide a focus for people to come together, interact and get to know one another.

This feeling of community is important. It was brought home a month or two ago when I was listening to a phone-in on BBC Radio Suffolk. The topic under discussion was cars speeding through villages. One caller pointed out that speed checks carried out by neighbourhood teams had shown that not all speeders were outsiders travelling from A to B – many people who broke the speed limit lived in the village. But, revealingly, the caller said: “The trouble is a lot of the people who live here aren’t local.” At first I smiled at the apparent conflict in the statement but then I realised that what they were expressing was the complete lack of community spirit.

They were suggesting that people who actually were resident in the village weren’t regarded as real villagers. They were just people who slept there. It suggested that they had little part in village life. They obviously worked elsewhere, their recreational activities were elsewhere, their children went to school elsewhere. Hence all the hurried vehicular to-ing and fro-ing.

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If more life was concentrated in the town or village, not only would it bring people closer together but it would reduce the traffic problems which were such a subject of discussion on that programme.

There shouldn’t be a gulf between long-term residents and so-called incomers – all communities need an ever-changing mix of people. Good communities are constantly evolving.

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Eastern Angles have been instrumental in helping to maintain the fabric of our towns and villages. Not only do they bring professional theatre to places that otherwise wouldn’t see a professional show, much of their material is either taken from local history or folklore, or has an East Anglian setting.

Equally importantly, they are continually offering opportunities for new writers to work with them. As co-founder and artistic director Ivan Cutting has said on numerous occasions, they do only new work. New work has a much-maligned reputation. It is often seen as difficult and overly challenging when, in reality, it is no more challenging or difficult than any other play.

I have had conversations with people who proudly proclaim that they don’t like new plays – “they are all about drugs and teenage pregnancies”, someone once told me – but when I pointed out that Eastern Angles only do new plays, they looked at me as if I had called them a liar.

Eastern Angles have tackled everything from a series of East Anglian farming tales in shows like The Reaper’s Year or When The Boats Came In, to local history in The Sutton Hoo Mob or Tithe War, or East Anglian book adaptations like Waterland or We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea.

In addition to touring shows to smaller towns and villages they have also done a number of larger productions, usually for anniversaries. They staged The Wuffings (which dealt with King Raedwald, the Saxon king believed to be buried at Sutton Hoo) at Notcutt’s warehouse at Pettistree, while Bentwater Roads and Margaret Catchpole were staged on an epic scale at the Hush House engine-testing facility at the former RAF Bentwaters airbase. Margaret Catchpole told the story of the Suffolk farm girl who was deported to Australia for stealing a horse to save her smuggler lover, while Bentwater Roads looked at the land that would go on to form the Cold War airbase and tell the stories of the people who lived there over hundreds of years.

The work of Eastern Angles has also attracted the attention of Suffolk-based musician and comic performer Neil Innes, who has agreed to become the theatre company’s patron. He and Ivan Cutting will be staging an evening of light-hearted stories, songs and anecdotes which will help raise match funding for a recent Arts Council Catalyst award.

Eastern Angles has the potential to access a �120,000 grant from the Arts Council which it is looking to invest in developing the next generation of writers, theatre directors and actors, and wants to devote more resources to working with older people, and to continue investing in high quality rural touring.

The Catalyst award requires match funding and so Eastern Angles have launched an ambitious three-year fundraising campaign which aims to raise �100,000 through private giving, philanthropic donations and events such as the Neil Innes evening. Neil is a huge fan of Eastern Angles: “I believe that companies like Eastern Angles are hugely important to the social fabric of our society. Not only do they bring theatre to the people but it is all about keeping entertainment real; keeping it live. We live in an age where so much of our entertainment is mass-produced. It is removed from us. It is downloaded or is digital. Eastern Angles is all about real actors; bringing real stories to you. Performing on your doorstep. Telling your stories. It’s fantastic. It’s what real entertainment, real theatre, is all about. I am very happy that I can do something to help.”

Ivan Cutting was thrilled that Neil had agreed to become their patron, adding: “I am always wary of having a patron who is just a name on a piece of headed notepaper. I want a patron who is genuinely involved in our work and understands what we do. Neil undoubtedly fits both those requirements. His view of the world very much matches our own.”

They said An Evening With Neil Innes will involve Ivan guiding Neil through his varied career – his work with the Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band, his work with The Beatles on Magical Mystery Tour, his time with Monty Python and his involvement with ex-Beatle George Harrison on both the Monty Python films and with his spoof-Beatles band The Rutles.

Ivan said: “I will be teasing some stories out of Neil. We’ll also have our guitars with us. We’ve been rehearsing some songs, so there’ll be some music-making as well. It’ll be a hugely entertaining evening. Neil’s a great raconteur, so I’ll be doing my best to keep a straight face.”

An Evening with Neil Innes is being staged to raise funds for Eastern Angles theatre company and is being staged at Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich, on October 21. Tickets are �15 and can be booked at www.easternangles.co.uk or on 01473 211498.

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