From Snape to the North Pole with the Co-op Juniors Theatre Company

Tickets please as the Co-op Juniors Theatre Company switches tracks with its latest Christmas Spectacular. Entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE takes a ride on the North Pole Express.

AFTER six years of breaking audience records, the biggest stage show in Suffolk is heading in a new direction - in more ways than one.

Stepping into the huge rehearsal studio in Ipswich, if audiences are excited as much as the cast and crew seem to be the Ipswich-based group is in for further sell-out success.

Final rehearsals are in full swing at the East of England Co-op warehouse, large enough to house the massive stage set and 109-strong cast for this year’s show.

Above the two-level set, huge video panels show a steam train thundering through the snow.


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Magically, it then appears large as life and hissing steam right on the stage as the Conductor invites two children from the audience to join him for the journey of a lifetime.

This is the North Pole Express, taking the cast and audience on a magical adventure all the way to the Arctic.

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Surrounded by the chaos of rehearsal, co-director Pauline Walker is remarkably calm.

“It’s a magical and entrancing story, with the Conductor of the North Pole Express taking two children who want to know the truth about Father Christmas all the way to the Pole.

“That takes some special stage magic and, of course, they have to believe that anything can happen,” she says, sat on a loading platform once used to store provisions for Co-op grocery vans, the garage below now converted into a theatre.

“And it does,” adds co-director Jeannie Ingram, who with Pat Hoggarth designs all the costumes for the huge cast. “It’s an adventure like no other with spectacle and drama along the way.”

There’s still all the high-energy dancing and singing the show is famous for; but going down the story route is a dramatic shift in style. Why change such a popular show?

“We like to excite the audience’s imagination, take them by surprise and deliver the ‘wow’ factor,” says Alan Ayres, who wrote the story and is technical director for the group.

“A Sorcerer gives the Conductor safe passage with the Spirit of Christmas, captured in his lantern; but there are troubles ahead. We want people to feel they’re seeing something magical.”

“Having a story this year changes the feel of the show,” says Jack Brett, who plays said Conductor of the North Pole Express.

“It’s exciting to be part of such a big production. I act as the narrator while the North Pole Express travels all over the world on its way to Santa Claus.”

The 18-year-old is studying performing arts at Suffolk College, playing the lead role in Suffolk Youth Theatre’s Metamorphosis earlier this year and Fagin in Oliver! at Northgate School. Last week he appeared in Passion with the Wolsey Young Company.

Acting seems to run in the family; his brother Oliver works as a performer at Disneyland Paris.

“I love taking on such different roles,” he admits during a break in rehearsals. “The Conductor is mischievous, slightly eccentric and a bit self-important. He is in charge of the train, after all!”

Jack also has a chance to transform himself into the ringmaster at the circus and the MC in a medley from the musical Cabaret, along with a demanding a capella number.

“I’ve never taken on such a variety of roles in one production before. It’s a challenge.”

Musical director Nigel Virley says there’s a wonderful festive feel to the show.

“There’s non-stop music of every style, plus a visit to the circus, an enchanted toy shop with clockwork dolls and marching toy soldiers and of course candlelit carols.”

One guaranteed eye-popping moment sees the evil Ice Queen summon her ice warriors to stop the train by freezing the tracks.

In the rehearsal studio, jaws drop as a two-metre high swan carrying her glides impressively across the stage, seeming to float on fog. “We’re using more special effects than ever before,” adds Alan. “The size of the train and swan is testing the stage crew’s ingenuity and the audience is left wondering how we did it.”

Christmas Spectacular! opens at Snape Maltings Concert Hall next Friday, with two shows a day until December 21. For more information and a sneak peak at the show visit www.coopjuniors.co.uk

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