Southwold’s Theatre on the Coast will be opening its curtains online this summer

Kitty Dunham in Attagirls! which receives its premiere at this year's Theatre on the Coast. Aircraf

Kitty Dunham in Attagirls! which receives its premiere at this year's Theatre on the Coast. Aircraft courtsey of Andrew Wenman and the team at Hawker Restorations, Elmsett Airfield Photo- TFS Photo Woodbridge - Credit: Archant

Summer theatre is an important part of Suffolk’s cultural offering but this year was always going to be a challenge. However, technology has come to the rescue

Liz Cook, Sally Owen, Matthew Townshend, Sam Culwick, David Hermon - Theatre on the Coast in Southwo

Liz Cook, Sally Owen, Matthew Townshend, Sam Culwick, David Hermon - Theatre on the Coast in Southwold Photo: Theatre on the Coast - Credit: Archant

When theatrical entrepreneur Matthew Townsend revived summer theatre in Southwold last year, renaming it Theatre on the Coast, to give his new venture a clear identity, he knew that he had a challenge on his hands but he also knew he had an audience.

What he couldn’t have guessed was the fact that his loyal audience, thanks to Coronavirus restrictions, wouldn’t be allowed to attend any of the planned performances for 2020. Never one to let a seemingly insurmountable obstacle confound him, Matthew is determined to keep live theatre alive in Suffolk this summer and is planning a series of live premieres streamed direct from Southwold Arts Centre every weekend from the end of August through to mid-September.

The season will combine new work by local writers and performers as well as appearances by industry legends like Robert Powell and composer Denis King. Matthew said that the new work will feature both comedy and drama as well as hosting a showcase of new short plays developed for Halesworth’s Ink Festival which had to be postponed this year.

Like theatre producers up and down the country Matthew is incredibly frustrated that the pandemic has had such long-lasting and far reaching effects but he recognises that safety for cast, crew and audiences should be everyone’s top priority.

Actors Kitty Dunham and Ellie Ross prepare for their roles in �Attagirls� by Stewart Ross, on locati

Actors Kitty Dunham and Ellie Ross prepare for their roles in �Attagirls� by Stewart Ross, on location at Parham airfield museum with Peter Senior from the museum, Photo Dominic Clemence - Credit: Archant

Nevertheless, the interruption is particularly galling when he considers that this year’s line-up is particularly strong and has been developed using local talent residing in north Suffolk.

“This year’s programme features new commissions that reflect both recent times and our common history. These new works have been developed with both high profile and emerging talents. All 4 One is a new comedy from celebrated TV and Radio writers Jan Etherington and Gavin Petrie. Set on a cold and short afternoon in the New Year, Grandma calls the family together for a crisis conference.

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“When Grandma is the Head of State and the children, grandchildren and in laws are Dukes, Duchesses, Princes and Princesses, the stakes could not be higher.

“Our second full length commission is Attagirls!, a drama from award winning historian Stewart Ross celebrating the contribution made by women pilots of the Air Transport Association during the Second World War. Three women from very different backgrounds join the ATA to ferry every type of RAF aircraft around the country and over the Channel, but the dangers they face in the skies are matched by the battles they have to fight on the ground.”

Matthew Townshend,.artistic director of Theatre on the Coast Photo: Alex Hermon

Matthew Townshend,.artistic director of Theatre on the Coast Photo: Alex Hermon - Credit: Archant

Also on the bill this year is Astrid King’s heartfelt tribute to her mother Peg Lynch, pioneer of Radio and TV comedy in 1950’s America, while Holby City and Jesus of Nazareth actor Robert Powell comes to give his take on Charles Dickens and joins a last night cabaret featuring the songs of yet another Suffolk star – Denis King, creator of the music for Black Beauty, Lovejoy and collaborated with the late Peter Nichols’ on the show Privates on Parade.

In Optimistic people, Denis will be joined by Robert Powell and Sarah Redmond as they will entertain with songs, stories and extracts from shows.

“And that’s not all - along the way we still hope to take some of the short scripts first seen at the INK festival and present them now fully staged in a dedicated evening of new writing by emerging talent.”

Matthew said that although they will be inviting a small, socially distanced audience, to watch the performances live, sadly streaming will be the only option for most people wanting to enjoy Theatre on the Coast this year.

Paul Ansdell and Emma Keele in The End of the Line in 2019 Photo: Peter Clark

Paul Ansdell and Emma Keele in The End of the Line in 2019 Photo: Peter Clark - Credit: Archant

His plan is to try and keep the rhythm of the season intact for both performers and audiences. “We move into Southwold Arts Centre on August 10 for a technical rehearsal week and then from the following Monday the actors will rehearse and film each new show in just a week, with the live transmission going out at 7.30pm over the weekend beginning on August 22, ending with Optimistic People on September 12.

“There are two double bill weekends which brings the season to six shows over four weekends. By booking as a subscriber to Theatre on the (virtual) Coast, you can watch online either on the night of the show or for up to seven days following, paying a one-off fee to receive the link for each weekend’s shows.

For Matthew and the production team this season will undoubtedly bring challenges but there is also the crackle of excitement in his voice when he talks about staging these ‘distanced’ performances.

“It’s really exciting – it’s a new way of working for us and it’s full of technical and creative challenges. How do we turn a play text written for the stage into a shooting script? What do we do with the set designs that we were working on? How many cameras to use? Yes, it’s a big gulp but when the adrenaline kicks in …

“We realised early on that making use of technology is going to be integral to how we plan future seasons, broadening our reach, accessing hard to reach audiences and offering interactive content. We see it as an opportunity arising out of a crisis. Honest.”

He said that casting will be interesting (read challenging) because not only do they have to take into account the demands of the script but also think about accommodation. He is looking to mix experience with the considerable pool of talent to be found on our doorstep in Suffolk.

The spectre of a localised outbreak or a more widespread second wave sends shivers down his spine but Matthew says they will take every precaution they can but then just have to get on with the show. “Cancelling remains our final and worst option. When the crisis struck my first decision was to postpone, but as the realities of the pandemic have played out, with distancing, reduced capacities and questions over the dates for any possible re-opening, the move to digital became the clear option.”

He says that this way it provides them with an opportunity to build on the success of last year, gives the experience of another year and they can fine-tune the shows to the tastes of local audiences.

“The trick is to find the right mix in the programme of new and challenging work together with really fresh takes on established material.

“On a positive note and with more of us staying at home or holidaying within the UK, this couldn’t be a better time for a revival of interest in our local theatres. This is the chance for smaller spaces and for innovative companies to reclaim some of the territory. Whatever brings audiences into their own town’s theatre, it has to be exciting, top quality, span all the artforms and truly reflect the world we live in now and want to inhabit in the future.

Booking information will be on the website

Theatre on the Coast (live online)

All shows start at 7.30pm

Saturday August 22nd: All 4 One

A new comedy by Jan Etherington and Gavin Petrie

Friday August 28: Beyond INK

New productions of short plays first seen at the country’s biggest festival of new writing.

Saturday August 29: Attagirls!

A new Drama by award winning historian and writer Stewart Ross

Saturday September 5: Astrid King and A Funny Woman present The Peg Lynch Players.

Comic genius from a pioneer in TV and Radio. Devised and performed with Tim Fitzhigham.

September 11: Robert Powell

One man show Charles Dickens: a celebration

September 12: Denis King’s Optimistic People