Bury St Edmunds: Exploring the darker side of George Formby at Theatre Royal

Ewan Wardrop stars in Formby, at Bury St Edmund's Theatre Royal

Ewan Wardrop stars in Formby, at Bury St Edmund's Theatre Royal - Credit: Archant

George Formby is the quintessential cheeky chappy. Behind the broad smile lays a slightly darker story, constantly comparing himself to his dead father and a wife described by co-creator and director of new show Formby Ed Hughes as a bit of a b***-breaker business-wise.

George Formby

George Formby

“Exploring the story, what we realised was he had a very complicated relationship with his wife, Beryl. She gave up her career to push his and I have a real soft spot for her because she was a woman in a man’s world - she would go in and negotiate all his contracts, she made him the star really,” says Hughes, who came up with the idea with writer and performer Ewan Wardrop.

“George was quite a simple man who had quite simple tastes, but she was highly ambitious (and) without her he wouldn’t have got to his position. They needed each other desperately but at the same time, towards the end of their life, which is where the darkness probably comes into George’s story, they couldn’t live with each other. It’s a complex story of a relationship, that’s where the heart of the play is.”

Then there was Formby’s father, George Snr, a massive music hall star of his day, who pushed his son into becoming a jockey - albeit not a very successful one - from the age of 10.

“Back in 1914, his father was earning £500 a week which is the equivalent of £40,000 a week now. He was a big, big star. His tomb is bigger, George Jnr is just a little plaque under his father’s tomb.

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“His dad died quite young and George took over his father’s mantle. He always felt he never quite lived up to his father, we talk about that in the play...”

Hughes, born in Bury St Edmunds and raised in Sudbury and Ipswich is looking forward to bringing the show to Bury’s Theatre Royal.

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“It’s a beautiful theatre and I think the show will sit well in there because it’s an older style. The show dates back to the period of music hall where we go back to George Formby Snr, there’s a lot of history within the story of George.

“It’s nice to go to Bury, I’ve still got family there. We brought Formby to Ipswich, to the New Wolsey, which is where I made my professional debut at eight in The Winter’s Tale, that was good as well, it’s great to connect with where I come from.”

Audiences, say Hughes, are in for a very theatrical treat with former ballet dancer and long-time Formby fan Wardrop multi-tasking way beyond just playing all the characters himself.

“He was at the Royal Ballet School and was also in all the original Matthew Bourne ballets. Beryl was a clog dancer, so at various points in the show we have Ewan playing the ukulele live with no backing, singing the songs and also clog dancing at the same time - all sorts of things George wouldn’t have been able to do himself.”

It’s been a long journey for the duo, who have seen the show go from an idea in the dressing room they shared while appearing in London’s West End to brainstorming sessions in an East London pub to winning rave reviews at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the space of three years.

“To come to Bury at the end of a three-year period is quite poetic in some way.”

Formby, produced by Hughes’ Salida Productions in association with Assembly, will be leaning on a lamp-post at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, from May 7-8.

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