A labour of love saved Bury Theatre Royal from destruction
- Credit: Archant
It’s extraordinary how quickly fortunes can change. In 1892 the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal hosted the world premiere of one of the great plays of English theatre.
D’Oyly Carte Opera Company star W. S. Penley produced the first production of the classic comedy Charley’s Aunt before it transferred to London’s Globe Theatre and started an initial run which only ended after 1,466 performances.
Bury St Edmunds, at the dawn of the 20th century, was at the vanguard of contemporary theatre but a mere 34 years later the theatre was dark. It’s audience had deserted it and it was being used as a barrel store by local brewers Greene King.
However, fortunes do change and after a further 39 years of neglect, the theatre re-opened and was saved from complete dereliction by the very community that had turned its back on the building during the Roaring Twenties.
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the re-birth of the town’s Georgian theatre and current artistic director Karen Simpson has commissioned a new musical, A Labour of Love, which celebrates the achievements of the Bury people in saving its cultural heritage.
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The play, which is being directed by Simpson, has been written by local playwright Danusia Iwaszko with a score provided by Phil Gostelow, who worked on last year’s pantomime.
Danusia, known as Dany, said that she was thrilled to be able to tell the story of the theatre’s resurrection because it’s a venue which is very close to her heart.
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“I have been involved with the Theatre Royal for quite a while. I first started working with the team during Colin’s (Blumenau) time.
“When Karen Simpson took over she was looking for projects to do and she heard about the story of how the theatre was rescued from being a Greene King barrel store. She thought it would be a good idea to turn that story into a play. She read some of my work and commissioned me to write the play.
“I live in Bury, I love the theatre because it is a unique building and I love the fact that it is a real working theatre and not a museum.”
Karen said that the theatre is full of ghosts and voices – not all of Georgian and Victorian actor-managers. Many of them belong to people and families who still live in the town and battled for six long years to return the theatre to its former glory.
Interviews with the people involved and their descendants have been a key part of the research process.
For Dany, the key part of the process was discovering how the campaign got underway. “I knew from the beginning what my story was going to be. It was ‘From Barrel Store to Theatre’. What interested me was finding the characters and discovering what triggered them into action?”
From September to February she conducted 25 extensive interviews and spent nearly two months in the Suffolk Record Office trawling through newspaper cuttings and official letters and building documents.
Surprisingly, it was here, in between the facts, figures and dry details, that she found her way into the story.
“The paper work was indispensible. Trawling through the files I found a cutting about a woman who called Ethel Groat, an actress who lived in the States. She would come over and visit her friend in Bury, a woman called Olga Ironside Wood, a character I had already been introduced to during my interviews.
“In among the cuttings I discovered not only why the theatre closed but the spark that led to re-opening. It turned out that Ethel and Olga were driving passed the old redundant theatre and Ethel casually mentioned to her friend that she had performed at the theatre in 1916 before it closed.
“In another story Ethel is talking about being on stage in Bury during a Zeppelin raid during the First World War and she talked very movingly about how the theatre was so good for morale and how it never closed despite the Zeppelin raids.
“Despite being such a important part of the community, it is shocking to discover that in ten years audiences had fallen to such an extent that the theatre was forced to close.
“Its closure coincided with the emergence of cinema. Cinema was the big thing and everyone was going to the picturehouse. So Greene King, who owned the building, closed the theatre and turned it into a barrel store.
“It gradually became more dilapidated until Ethel and Olga came driving passed and Ethel made her chance remark.
“This would have been in the late 1950s and would have struck a chord with Olga Ironside Wood who was West Suffolk County Council’s drama advisor at the time.”
This discovery not only provided a way into the story but also provided some necessary moments of tragedy and drama. It was after the first read through of the first draft that it became clear that Olga Ironside Wood was the central focus of the story.
Karen said: “We did a read through of the first draft. Dany hadn’t really got a play at this point but what she had done was capture how people felt about the theatre and why they wanted to save it. It didn’t have any dramatic structure. I said to Dany: ‘You’ve got one character here that really speaks to me and that’s Olga Ironside Wood.’ She was the person who really was the driving force behind this. She had the vision and really wanted to get the theatre back on its feet again.
“She poured her heart and soul into this campaign and at the end of it she didn’t have a role to play in the newly re-opened theatre. She wasn’t given a job within the management team of the theatre. Neville Blackburn, who had tried re-open it in the 1940s and ran the school at Nowton, was given the task of running it. He was very well connected and he brought people like actor George Baker to Bury.
“Olga had seen it as a venue for amateurs. Of course, it has always had that role but the missing element to her vision was that it needed a business model. It needed to be run on a professional basis, if it was to pay its bills and stay open.
“Neville understood that and was able to articulate it and clearly Olga didn’t. She was too much of a purist. Although she was an integral part of the campaign, she has almost been written out of the history books because of what happened afterwards. Her vision was almost too pure. She couldn’t see the wider picture and that was why she was sidelined. As soon as we hooked onto that the dramatic shape of the piece started to take form.”
Dany added that although Olga is a central figure in the narrative there are a wealth of other characters who demand to be heard – people like Johnny Petch and Air Vice Marshall Stanley Vincent, known to all as AVM, who also played key roles.
“They are such remarkable people that it is very easy to get sidetracked into telling their own stories. Johnny Petch was a larger-than-life character, outrageously camp, who ran the shoe shop in Abbeygate Street and was a central figure in the local amateur drama scene and it was he who came up with the notion of The Vollies, a group of volunteers, which still keep the theatre running today.
“Meanwhile AVM had shot down enemy aircraft in both world wars. He fought the Red Baron in the first and led the Bury troops out of Burma in the second and then he ends up playing a major role in the re-opening of this theatre.
“There was so much great material that I had to keep focussed on the story I was telling – although I may revisit some of these character in other plays.”
Karen said that the town owes a huge debt to the vision of everyone who battled to re-open the theatre in 1965.
“It is an extraordinary story because they raised the equivalent of millions of pounds in today’s money. It was a true community project. The people really came together to resurrect this beautiful theatre.
“I just think it is an incredible story and the musical is a complete celebration of their hard work and generosity. None of us would be working here if it wasn’t for their hard work and their belief in the Theatre Royal.”
A Labour of Love runs at Theatre Royal from July 16-25. An exhibition drawing together some of the stories uncovered by research into the play is also open at the theatre thoughout the summer.
Turning a play into a musical
Playwright Danusia Iwaszko said that she had steadfastly resisted Karen’s desire to turn their play into a musical until it was almost too late.
“We got some actors in to hear an early draft and I realised the whole thing was too linear. It had too much research showing. I also had to admit that Karen was right and this was a musical. I had been resisting that because I thought it would make it too complicated and long but music and songs was what this show needed.
“I had written a long speech about passion and live theatre. After all, this was the reason everyone was giving up their time and raising all this money but the problem was that no-one ever talked like that. That was the moment when I realised that all this information, all this passion would be better delivered in song.
“Fortunately we had a brilliant composer and musical director in Phil Gostelow who provided us with a fabulous score at the 11th hour. Just as we were looking at starting the casting and the design process we were having to re-shape the show as a musical.
“Fortunately I had seen Phil’s work with the panto. It was now the end of April, so I phoned up Phil and he was touring with Blood Brothers. As luck would have it, the tour had a summer break which meant he was free to come back to Bury to MD A Labour of Love.
“So I take a deep breath and asked him to take a leap into the dark with our show and he said yes. It was a ridiculous deadline. We started work at the beginning of May and we wrote ten songs straight off. This show has a unique energy. It’s not splash-dash but there was no time for self-indulgence. I was listening to them the other day and I thought to myself: ‘My God, they are straight from the heart.’ It’s there on the page. That energy, that passion, that drive that got our wonderful theatre back from the edge of destruction.”