Rural theatre UpStix

WOODBRIDGE, one of the picturesque jewels in Suffolk's crown, will be playing host next weekend to a festival of theatre as touring companies from across the country gather to share their wares not only with each other but also with audiences from the local area.

By Andrew Clarke

WOODBRIDGE, one of the picturesque jewels in Suffolk's crown, will be playing host next weekend to a festival of theatre as touring companies from across the country gather to share their wares not only with each other but also with audiences from the local area.

Over the space of three days 14 theatre companies, some coming from as far away as Canada and the Hebrides will be staging 20 performances across a wide range of venues - and to augment the performances the theatre professionals will be having a rare opportunity to sit down to together swap notes and experiences as well as formulating plans for the future.

There's a mixture of plays and material on offer including Eastern Angles own Sutton Hoo Mob, the bawdy adventures of The Country Wife, an adaptation of Charles Dickens Great Expectations, a tale of Edwardian housepainters in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, tales of old Hollywood in Whatever happened To Bette and Joan, sixties classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood and a performance from Theatre Hebrides called The Callanish Stoned which is described as part-party, part-rock concert and part-ceilidh.

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This is the first time that Suffolk has staged the Pride of Place Theatre Festival which is being hosted by Eastern Angles. Founder and artistic director Ivan Cutting said that he pitched for the event to be held in Suffolk because he felt that we had a lot to offer visiting companies.

“It's been to Mansfield twice and Salisbury and we would that Suffolk would be a great place to host a festival dedicated to rural touring theatre, audiences here would instinctively know what the idea of touring theatre was all about.

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“Also I felt that Suffolk and the coastal area was such a beautiful place that when people weren't watching plays then they could explore a historic town like Woodbridge or the surrounding countryside.”

He said that he selected Woodbridge to host the event because the town has important associations with the history of the company and because it forms an important link between the rural towns of Suffolk and the big urban centre, represented by Ipswich.

“One of the reasons that we chose to revive The Sutton Hoo Mob, one of our early shows, this year was because it epitomises not only what we do - producing plays about our heritage but also it's relevant to the birth of our county. In many ways The Sutton Hoo Mob, which is all about the discovery of the Saxon ship burial, served as a precursor to our big anniversary show The Wuffings which looked at the founding of the first Royal household of England - the setting of which was at Sutton Hoo of course.”

He said that he has been greatly encouraged by the fact the townspeople of Woodbridge have embraced the event and have put forward venues for the performances and local hotels will benefit from putting up the performers.

“It's been a huge logistical exercise trying to programme everything in - even as recently as last week we had to change around the programme. I had a call from The Hebrides Company who had rearranged some dates and could now come down to the festival and could I accommodate them? I was thrilled to accommodate them but it meant drawing up the programme afresh because I had just finished the running order and now I had to juggle everything round again.”

He said that having the privilege of hosting the event meant that he could re-arrange the traditional structure of the festival and he has organised the performances so local audiences can see up to four performances in a day and still have time to walk between venues and have a bite to eat.

“The performances are open to everyone. It's a great opportunity to what other touring companies in other parts of the country are up to. They, like us, have their set geographical areas and very rarely do they get the opportunity to perform outside their locality, so we are in a fortunate position of being able to sample the wares of over a dozen imaginative theatre companies who are dedicated to bringing live theatre to rural audiences.”

He said that he has christened this year's Pride of Place Festival Upstix to reflect the peripatetic nature of their work. He said that the Festival is backed by The Arts Council, recognises the demands placed on rural theatre companies. The festival was born at a time when Government funding for the arts was being concentrated on a few centres of excellence which was dubbed The Glory of the Garden at the time.

“The idea at the time was to create cultural mega-supermarkets which were concentrated in the middle of major urban areas which meant at the time that the rural areas were left to fend for themselves and we then formed The Pride of Place Festival to exchange ideas and form a self-support organisation.

“We see the event in Woodbridge as the start of something big - and although it won't happen every year we hope it will become a regular event - and perhaps will mirror the small beginnings of something like the Hay-On-Wye festival or the early years of The Edinburgh Fringe festival.”

Eastern Angles themselves will be staging an afternoon performance of their current production The Sutton Hoo Mob in an afternoon slot so as not to distract from the offerings from visiting companies while New Angles, the Eastern Angles youth company will be staging two productions for visiting companies - a revival of East Anglian Psychos and Idun's Apples, a new work adapted from a Norse myth by Roy Marsh and designed to be staged in the 21st century office space of Endeavour House.

But for the theatre professionals there will also be plenty to talk about when next Thursday they gather at Endeavour House, the headquarters of Suffolk County Council, for the Cobbett Sessions, named after the original angry young William Cobbett - and 18th century traveller and writer who wrote Rural Rides a book attacking government corruption, vote rigging, press manipulation and social injustice.

Among the topics the theatre companies will be tackling are: Is the countryside too important to be left to the farmers?; Is there what amounts to a passive apartheid in rural areas?; Rural is a state of mind not a postcode; Don't scare the horses - which looks at the need to balance new work and strong contemporary material with the need to please populist audiences and a look at the idea that perhaps theatre buildings are now out of date.

Ivan said that the need to be mobile is one factor which brings all the companies together. He said that unlike many of the visiting groups Eastern Angles were a large organisation with a home base in the St John Mills Theatre and with some expensive equipment and raked seating which they toured round with them. “I suppose you could say that we straddle both worlds. But it will be interesting to see what ideas come out of these sessions.”

Once the talking is over, there follows a weekend of theatre performances which are open to the general public. “There are some very interesting productions including a group from Canada which are doing a show called Mesa. It will be interesting to see how a company from a different country handles touring productions. They have a reputation for original and playful productions.

“I am also looking forward to seeing Theatre Hebrides because I think it will be quite different from anything we have done. It's good to see how different companies tackle different production scenarios. There will be a lot for audiences to enjoy and we will also have a lot of new ideas to think about.”

Venues for the plays include the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich and in Woodbridge Abbey School Hall, Woodbridge Community Hall, Farlingaye High, Queen's Hall, St Mary's Hall and Woodbridge School.

He added that in addition to seeing plays he said there are a number of festival events as well as places to visit. The Shire Hall will be presenting The Story of Woodbridge and Early Theatre In Woodbridge while the Suffolk Punch Heavy Horse Museum and the Tide Mill will both be open to visitors.

Ivan said: “If there is a good response from the public then we would like to stage the festival again or certainly something like it on a fairly regular basis.”

Tickets for the plays are available singly or for a number of shows and there are savings of £8.50 when you book for three shows at once and £12.50 when you book for five shows. Public performances are on Friday March 31 and Saturday April 1. Tickets can be booked on 01473 211498 or online at

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