Theatres bite into the credit crunch

Panto may be ruling the theatrical roost at the moment but behind the scenes our local theatres are putting the finishing touches for their 2009 spring seasons.

Andrew Clarke

Panto may be ruling the theatrical roost at the moment but behind the scenes our local theatres are putting the finishing touches for their 2009 spring seasons. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at what we have in store.

With panto time in full swing, the 2009 theatre season seems a long way off but as the ugly sisters screech and squawk at each other, puss pulls on his boots and Dick Whittington battles the Pi-Rats of the Caribbean the region's theatres are already busily preparing their spring programme.

In these credit crunched times the theatres seem to have opted for laughter and a wide variety of shows to raise people's spirits from the mire of the financial gloom.

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There is also a high level of co-operation existing between the theatres - creating co-productions, touring productions and working out a complementary programme.

Both Sarah Holmes, from the New Wolsey, Ipswich, and Colin Blumenau, from Bury Theatre Royal, are enthusiastic about building on existing relationships to allow East Anglia's theatregoers to get the most from their respective programmes.

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At the New Wolsey they are starting the New Year off with Alan Ayckbourn's classic comedy about the disasters and power-struggles that can go on in the heady world of amateur theatre in A Chorus of Disapproval.

The play, a co-production with the Colchester Mercury, stars Julian Harries, fresh from his Christmas romp with Eastern Angles and the terrifying case of The Haunted Commode.

This is Julian's second outing with the New Wolsey, having appeared in Peter Rowe's ground-breaking production of Neville's Island - a critically acclaimed production which managed to get a real island, complete with flowing water on the New Wolsey stage.

Production-wise this won't be as a challenging but the script is a renowned classic from the master of British suburban comedy and director Peter Rowe will be working hard to wring every last laugh from the neatly observed comic satire about the ego-driven world of am-dram.

As it's a joint production with the Colchester Mercury many of the other cast members will be drawn from the Mercury's stock repertory company. The production will be directed at the Mercury's rehearsal facilities by New Wolsey director Peter Rowe but mounted at the New Wolsey first - from February 12-28 before moving across to the Colchester theatre from March 5-21.

Sarah Holmes, the New Wolsey's chief executive, said: “It's a play that's crammed with memorable characters. If there's one thing that Ayckbourn is good at and that's creating comic characters. We have opted for a lighter season than normal because we saw the credit crunch looming and we have absolutely no idea how it is going to impact on us. There have been various comforting words said by other people who have experienced previous recessions and they have all said that people haven't stopped going to the theatre but I have purposely kept this season light.”

She also added more short-run pieces in an effort to attract a wide range of audiences. “I have made the most of the opportunity to try and bring in more companies but play them for a shorter period of time. So you've got to keep your wits about you otherwise you may miss something good.”

Her own picks of the season are not the most obvious. From the new season Sarah believes that Whiter Than Snow will have audiences laughing their heads off. “I saw Whiter Than Snow in the Lyric studio and it is the most fun, family piece. It's just right for people who love fringe shows - the Pulse audience, those who go to Edinburgh. They will love it, it's just getting the message out there.

“It's a tough sell because it is a great children's show but it's not for little children because it's quite dark in places. It's more Brothers Grimm than Disney. It's about getting the balance right and finding the right audience.”

She said that the story - although a very visual tale - also had the ability to create mind pictures. She said that anyone who saw The Snow Queen last year would immediately get this post-modern fairytale.

Sarah's other predicted sure-fire hit of the season is the intriguingly named Spyski which publicity manager Sharon Jenkins caught during last year's Edinburgh Festival.

Sharon said: “This show is a spy spoof but they start out doing Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. But then things start to happen. They attempt to continue doing Earnest it all falls apart. It is absolutely hilarious. It's very clever and quite physical. Peepolykus are a company who have been around for quite a while and their work is very highly regarded.

“They always have good sets and props and everything is always well thought through and the reviews in Edinburgh were amazing and I thought we have to have this for the main Wolsey season.” They are so confident of the quality of this company that this is one of the few full weeks that Sarah has booked from a touring company.

“What's good about it is that it is very innocent humour. Parents can sit there with their eight year old kids and both have an equally good time. Shows like that are fairly rare and are to be cherished.”

Sarah also has high hopes for Can Any Mother Help Me? from Foursight Theatre, the people behind the popular Thatcher: The Musical. She said that the booking was a little bit of a shot in the dark because the play hasn't been staged yet but said she booked it on the strength of the sell-out success of Thatcher: The Musical. “We know they can do it. It's a lovely endearing story. If you sat around and said we're only going to take in tried and tested work then you are never going to get any of the new stuff.”

Can Any Mother Help Me? is based on the best-selling book by Jenna Bailey about the funny, often moving stories of early 20th century women who gained fame by writing for a secret magazine.

She said that she was pleased that New Wolsey audiences were now trusting them to deliver surprising shows that perhaps they hadn't heard of before but when they get to see the show they have a good time.

“There's no short cuts in this business. It's about building trust and delivering good quality work.”

The other in-house production, part from A Chorus of Disapproval, is the intriguingly titled Chimps, a new play by playwright Simon Block, but a play which has had Sarah trying to persuade him to change the title - to no effect.

“It's a very timely, very apt comedy, all about what happens when couples get together, get married or set up home together, the pressures and comprises that everyone has to endure. It's a very well written play with plenty to entertain audiences but I feel that the subject matter isn't really reflected in the title.

“It's a very funny, well-written black comedy. It's hilarious but the title doesn't give audiences any immediate sense of what it is about. The title comes from a line in the play when a salesman says that people are like chimps, you can train them to do anything.”

If audiences can negotiate their way round the title then there is very wry play about financial insecurity which should strike a few chords with people - particularly in these straitened times.

Meanwhile at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, artistic director Colin Blumenau is delighted that for the first time that the theatre is producing three home grown shows, one of which Three Men In A Boat will tour west Suffolk before playing a week at the Theatre Royal (May 19-23) before finishing its run at the New Wolsey in Ipswich (May 26-28).

Colin said that like all theatres they aspire to put the very best work before their audiences but sadly for a largely receiving theatre like the Theatre Royal, Bury, high quality work for medium-scale theatres has becoming very thin on the ground.

So in Colin's mind there was only route to take - to create it themselves and then try and recoup some of the money by touring it to other venues.

He said: “Audiences have been saying to us, since we re-opened where is the Shakespeare, where is the kind of repertoire that we used to get and still want to see. The truth is it has either grown out of our range or it is no longer there. So we have taken a very deep breath and have said that we will trial doing three ourselves.

“One, Three Men In A Boat, is the touring production that we would do anyway, so there are only two extra productions to be budgeted for. But, having said that one's Shakespeare - Twelfth Night - and the other is Ayckbourn - Relatively Speaking - so they are very audience friendly pieces and hopefully they will be well supported.”

He said that it was very much a trial this year and there are no plans, at present, to make this level of home grown production a regular feature of the programme. “We will have to see how we go. We are not funded to produce plays ourselves like the Wolsey or the Mercury, so are operating in a very different way. But, we are determined to make this work. At the end opf the season we'll take stock and make any decisions that need to be made then. At this present time there are no plans to repeat the exercise in the autumn but we'll see how we go.”

He said that he has been delighted by the critical response to the staged Georgian productions in their Restoring the Repertoire seasons and with touring productions like Art. “What is even better is the attendance from the public at these productions have been great and very enthusiastic. We would love to produce more work ourselves, of course we would, but it costs the proverbial arm and leg to mount these productions and we can't sustain that level of production in the long term unless we have significantly increased financing.”

He said that it wasn't necessarily just holding discussions with the Arts Council, the theatre's funding embraced a whole variety of different bodies and cultural institutions.

“We have made a very good start. Black Eyed Susan, Wives As They are and Art have all been very well received, so have laid the foundations in terms of quality but now we need to build upon them. We are trying to deliver work of world class quality in a world class venue and we need to involve a great number of people in the discussions about what happens next.”

The first home grown production will be Twelfth Night which is being directed by Abigail Anderson, who directed Art. “Shakespeare is something of her speciality and I am really excited about her having the opportunity to dip into her Shakespeare box of tricks. Her take on the play will be new and surprising and I think will have something new to say about the text and the story.”

He said that he will be breaking new ground by having his first “bash” as he put it at directing an Alan Ayckbourn play - something he has never done until now. “I don't how I have gone for so long without doing an Ayckbourn but it's just one of those things that somehow I have never been in the right place to do it before now and I am strangely nervous about it and then we finish off the season with Three Men In A Boat as the rural tour - that again will be directed by Abigail Anderson.”

He said that Three Men In A Boat is being staged from a new adaptation which will bring the comic play to life for contemporary audiences.

The other highlight of the season for Colin is Teatro Kismet's The Snow Queen. “It's a fantastic piece of work. The company is from Italy and have come to the Theatre Royal for many years and we are delighted to welcome them back as they are the most fantastic company.”

The production is a dazzling, daring combination of theatre, dance and circus skills topped off with a impressive light show.

Other key pieces of the spring programme include appearances by Punella Scales and Timothy West at a funding raising dinner, a welcome return by Fascinating Aida, an Audience With Michael Portillo, David Benson singing the works of Noel Coward, Four Poofs and a Piano as well as the latest piece from Restoring The Repertoire programme A Trip To Bath by Frances Sheridan featuring the prototype for Mrs Malaprop.

The New Wolsey Theatre box office can be contacted on 01473 295900 and the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds is on 01284 769505. The websites are and

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