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Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds set for star-studded 200th birthday

PUBLISHED: 08:00 12 October 2019

Staff, volunteers and theatre-goers have shared their memories ahead of Theatre Royal Bury St Edmund's 200th birthday  Picture: THEATRE ROYAL BURY ST EDMUNDS

Staff, volunteers and theatre-goers have shared their memories ahead of Theatre Royal Bury St Edmund's 200th birthday Picture: THEATRE ROYAL BURY ST EDMUNDS

THEATRE ROYAL BURY ST EDMUNDS

Theatre-goers past and present have spoken of their fond memories of Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds ahead of the historic institution's 200th birthday.

The Theatre Royal Picture: SARAH LUCY-BROWNThe Theatre Royal Picture: SARAH LUCY-BROWN

The Grade I listed building in Westgate Street plans to celebrate with the grandeur expected from one of the UK's last surviving regency playhouses.

But to the people of Bury St Edmunds, the theatre is more than just a place to see the arts - it is a place where they grew up, lived, laughed and loved.

Among those is administration officer Sharron Stowe, who remains thankful for the theatre after a fire nearly brought the 19th century building to rubble.

The 1988 fire broke out during a rehearsal for a stage production of Aladdin, while the cast and crew were in full costume.

The Theatre Royal almost £2 million pounds of funding to help restore the theatre in 2009  Picture: TUDOR MORGAN-OWENThe Theatre Royal almost £2 million pounds of funding to help restore the theatre in 2009 Picture: TUDOR MORGAN-OWEN

Thanks to the quick thinking of the technical manager, the fire was contained - and despite the set being lost, the production opened the following week.

It is that community spirit that makes the theatre such an institution according to box office assistant Julia Foulsham.

She said: "As with any creative institution, there have been many ups and downs but due to the loyalty of all the staff and volunteers, we are lucky that we still have a thriving theatre when so many towns have lost theirs.

"There is nothing better than sitting in a full auditorium and watching live theatre, whether it be drama, dance, comedy, music or a children's show.

Roy Hudd at home in Suffolk.  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNRoy Hudd at home in Suffolk. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

"There is so much history here and you can feel it in the fabric of the building."

In 2005, a £5.3million restoration with the help of the National Trust saw the building restored to its original 1819 layout and design - meaning guests can enjoy the theatre in all its original glory.

The theatre will open its doors to the public at 7.30pm Sunday, October 13, for a star-studded line up of entertainers and performers for their "A Right Royal Revue" celebration.

Among the stars are Roy Hudd OBE, ventriloquist Steve Hewlett and Yorkshire comedian Duggie Brown.

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: GREGG BROWNThe Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: GREGG BROWN

The event will also raise money for the theatre's charity, with a charity auction set to include star prizes such as two night's stay at a Scottish mansion for up to 12 people.

Tickets are on sale for the night - including a free glass of champagne - via the box office website or 01284 769505.

Take a look at some of the staff and volunteers memories below

Helen - Box Office Assistant

Prince Charles met children from Hillside Primary, Ipswich, as part of a Dance East project  at the theatre in 2011  Picture: LUCY TAYLORPrince Charles met children from Hillside Primary, Ipswich, as part of a Dance East project at the theatre in 2011 Picture: LUCY TAYLOR

We had Out of Joint's touring promenade production of Macbeth at the Guildhall whilst the theatre was closed for the renovation. Danny Sapani was an amazing African warlord, there were a lot of machetes and machine guns on show, and Banquo literally leaped through the banqueting table as the audience were seated amongst the actors. It was pretty scary as you got frisked on the way in, it's a production that definitely made its mark and it's up there in the top 20, or even top 10.

On a lighter note we used to have great theatre days out in the summer, we all went off to Southwold for the day... It rained so we made good use of the gazebo! We also went to the End of The Pier show at Cromer, a boat trip on the Norfolk broads and Africa Alive.

Sharron Stowe - Administration Officer

1998 - the year the theatre nearly burnt down

Members of the Suffolk Young People's Theatre in rehearsals for the 2009 production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Picture: ANDY ABBOTT -Members of the Suffolk Young People's Theatre in rehearsals for the 2009 production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Picture: ANDY ABBOTT -

I had only been working in the Box Office for a couple of months. We were in production week for Aladdin and the cast were rehearsing in costume on stage. The Box Office was situated next door to the Theatre (pre-restoration) and we couldn't hear any alarms. We happened to look out of the Box office window and saw the cast and members of staff across the road. We were then told there was a fire on stage and the fire brigade were on their way. It was very fortunate that the fire was contained on stage and didn't spread to the auditorium. This was due to the quick thinking of the Technical Manager who had closed the tabs at the front of the stage before leaving the building. Despite most the set being lost the production opened the following week.

My overriding memory is everyone working together and feeling proud of the achievement.

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Keith Hoddy - Volunteer

West End star Ruthie Henshall visited the cast of West End star Ruthie Henshall visited the cast of "The Pajama Game" pupils from County Upper School in Bury St Edmunds when they performed at the Theatre Royal in 2010 Picture: TUDOR MORGAN-OWEN

My first contact with the Theatre Royal was when I was probably 10 years of age in about 1960. I was helping with the Bury Town Football Fete. With several others we stood on the back of an open builders' lorry and went to collect the stalls and some games which were stored in the foyer. I distinctly remember the fusty smell as the doors were opened. I was allowed to look round into what used to be the auditorium. There was no stage, just lots of wooden beer barrels. Ropes were hanging down and my overwhelming sensation was one of sadness. Such a place that had formerly housed the sounds of applause and laughter was reduced to being a storage shed. Beyond the dust the shell of the theatre remained, uncared for and unwanted. I felt very sad but somehow the past reached out and greeted me, this was no simple storage shed, this had a soul.

Over the next few years, I was a pupil at King Edward VI Grammar School and became involved in the drama group as an actor and stage manager. The restoration of the Theatre was in was in full swing and in the late 1960s the school performed several productions there. I remember meeting Olga Ironside-Wood who was so influential in the restoration and was a formidable, powerful lady. My association continued with involvement in the Theatre productions at the time, as a stage hand. I used to do my homework in the orchestra pit below the stage and when I heard the cues rush up and change the set for the next act. Not many people can say Doris Hare helped with their Geography homework or that they saw George Baker at work directing a new play. I fondly remember the play 'Charlie's Aunt' which was on for a long run as I listened below to every word and every joke. 'Brazil... where the nuts come from!'

So, the reality of life then took over and University came and went and I moved away. I was still interested in Theatre and over the years my wife and I did attend the odd production. However, it was after I retired I saw an advertisement for the 'Act your Age Group'. I joined and fortnightly found myself with others working on improvisation and theatre craft and just having great fun. We were certainly not 'Acting our Age' and over the last eighteen months I've had the opportunity to perform on the stage again several times after Fifty Years. I became part of the team delivering the 'Close Encounters' live interactive tours as a Barrel man from 1940. I am now also a voluntary steward.

So, the little boy who found the Theatre in such a sad state could not have predicted that he would one day appear on the stage there and be involved in a vibrant community theatre. The building has been restored but the staff, fundraisers, volunteers, community actors and touring productions all combine to bring life to it. Their work today honours the past heritage and hopefully sets a firm foundation for the future.

Rehearsals in 2009 for the a performance of The Massacre, a play staged for the first time after being Rehearsals in 2009 for the a performance of The Massacre, a play staged for the first time after being "lost" for 217 years Picture: PHIL MORLEY

I still stand on the stage and look into the auditorium and I see the beer barrels in my mind but I also see smiling faces and hear applause and laughter. This Theatre is alive.

Julia Foulsham - Box Office Assistant

I started work at Theatre Royal in 2005, just after the building was closed for a major refurbishment which was to take 2 years.

At that time, the box office was situated in the house next door, No.6, which I believe was once the house of the head brewer for the Greene King brewery.

Ballet Cymrus Cinderella in 2011  Picture: STEVE MILTONBallet Cymrus Cinderella in 2011 Picture: STEVE MILTON

This building also housed the offices and Wardrobe department plus a storage area.

The artistic director at the time was Colin Blumenau, who spearheaded the restoration project.

One of my first memories of that period of time was when I was taken into the auditorium to see the work going on and seeing that it had been stripped back to the bare earth. There was a scaffold gantry in place on top of which there were people hand painting the sky on the ceiling.

It was an exciting time seeing the theatre come back to life and seeing some of the artefacts that were found, such as clay pipes, old playbills, oyster shells and there were a lot of fundraising events.

During this time, we still kept the productions coming, using other venues around town such as the Guildhall and continued running Youth Theatre groups and holding concerts.

In my opinion, the best venue by far was the Big Top in Nowton Park where we presented two of our annual pantomimes.

This was a massive undertaking, not least to provide safe access to staff, patrons and all involved with the productions, box office provision, parking and power, without which it couldn't be done.

I still don't know how they did it but there was a magical quality to walking up the path way through the park to see the tent covered in fairy lights on a cold dark night. Quite interesting when it snowed!

I was also fortunate to take part in some community events during this time, including a couple of rehearsed readings, a community production of Northanger Abbey and a workshop involving researching the script of Black ey'ed Susan which was the play which re-opened the Theatre in 2007.

Since the re-opening, there have been many changes including new management, changes in staff, all bringing their unique talents and knowledge.

There have also been differences in programming but that is how the theatre has survived for 200 years

I have fond memories of the many productions I have seen over the years but highlights include Michael McIntyre, Lee Evans, many music events, ballets and the one time that the theatre was transformed into Theatre in the Round for a production of The London Merchant.

I have also been a member of two of the town's community companies, meaning I have been privileged to perform on the stage.

As with any creative institution there have been many ups and downs but due to the loyalty of all the staff and volunteers we are lucky that we still have a thriving theatre when so many towns have lost theirs.

There is nothing better than sitting in a full auditorium and watching live theatre, whether it be drama, dance, comedy, music or a children's show.

There is so much history here and you can feel it in the fabric of the building.

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