Spring heralds theatrical regrowth

Egusi Soup, the sharp comedy from writer Janice Okoh, which premieres at Bury Theatre Royal in Febru

Egusi Soup, the sharp comedy from writer Janice Okoh, which premieres at Bury Theatre Royal in February - Credit: Archant

I love spring. After the dark, damp winter months, there is something optimistic and refreshing about blue skies and green shoots. Certainly our theatres see the spring as a time of re-birth, unveiling enterprising, entertaining new seasons and refusing to let the nation’s current austerity mentality curtail their creativity.

Karen Simpson, the new artistic director of the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds.

Karen Simpson, the new artistic director of the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Archant

The Colchester Mercury is reviving the critically acclaimed West End musical Betty Blue Eyes, based on Michael Palin’s hit movie A Private Function, which they are then taking on a national tour while the New Wolsey is breathing new life into Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, giving it a punkish 21st Century attitude.

But, for me, the real joy is to see Bury’s Theatre Royal emerge from an 18-month-long identity crisis and attendant reorganisation with an exciting, ambitious programme that features three premieres.

Three national touring companies are choosing to open new work in Bury St Edmunds, at one of the country’s oldest, most intimate theatrical spaces. Artistic director Karen Simpson, who is programming her first season since taking over last September, said that she wanted to make drama the backbone of the theatre’s work while at the same time offering a larger provision for families.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that families represent the audiences of the future and while parents and children flock to panto they are often conspicuously absent from the auditorium during the rest of the year.

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Karen said that it was her mission to create a programme that would appeal as much to families as it would to seasoned theatregoers. While children’s theatre is an important feature in a season, the real trick is to offer a wide range of different shows which should entice the audience of tomorrow to make the journey from children’s matinees to those all-important evening performances.

But, at Bury Theatre Royal’s spring launch, it was clear that Karen Simpson was looking to keep audiences of all ages entertained, as she unveiled a trio of first class premieres which should have theatregoers from a wide area beating a path to their door.

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Cambridge-based Menagerie theatre company have teamed up with Bury Theatre Royal to launch their tour of inter-racial comedy Egusi Soup, the touching story of a Nigerian family living in a predominantly white neighbourhood in Britain. The play is penned by Janice Okoh, a former Nigerian lawyer, who spent many years working in The City, before discovering a love of theatre and writing.

The play had a workshop production at Eastern Angles before it was taken on by Menagerie and Janice overhauled the script making it tighter and funnier. It’s a play which has been developed and premiered in Suffolk but will go on to entertain audiences across the country.

This is also true of Alastair Whatley’s new production of Sebastian Faulk’s First World War drama Birdsong. The play toured last year but has been rewritten, recast and re-directed for this tour. The play, adapted by Rachel Wagstaff from Faulk’s best-selling novel, first made its transition to the stage in 2010 when Trevor Nunn opened it in the West End.

After the play closed early, Suffolk-born director Alastair Whatley met with writer Rachel Wagstaff, to discover that she had already revised the script. The remounted production gained rave reviews and has been revised again building on the experience of the previous tour.

The third premiere is Stella Feehily’s black comedy about the National Health Service This May Hurt A Bit which will see a hospital ward being constructed on the Bury stage. The play was inspired by director Max Stafford Clark’s six-month stay in a NHS hospital after he suffered a series of strokes in 2006.

His wife Stella Feehily was so struck by the surreal nature of life in a modern hospital and the characters to be found on the wards and among the staff that she turned their experiences into a sharp comedy.

After its Bury premiere the play will tour before moving into the West End.

This spring season, which also includes productions of Twelfth Night by Filter theatre company – in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, She Stoops To Conquer and Rising Damp, finds Bury’s Georgian playhouse once more in rude health.

After the recent turbulence it is reassuring to see that not only has Karen Simpson settled into her role but the theatre is once again serving up a feast of entertaining, first-rate drama.

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