Book tickets for the first live theatre show in Suffolk post-lockdown
- Credit: Tom Soper
After more than a year in darkness, Suffolk’s theatres are starting to emerge from Covid-induced hibernation and the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds is leading the way with its mad-cap, fast-paced Victorian adventure comedy Around The World in 80 Days.
Bury’s Regency theatre, built-in 1819, and the last surviving working Georgian playhouse, is looking to attract back audiences who have been starved of live entertainment for the past 18 months.
This specially commissioned adaptation of the Jules Verne classic, by Toby Hulse, also sees artistic director Owen Calvert-Lyons' directorial debut in the theatre, a year after being appointed.
Speaking during rehearsals, Owen said he was excited to finally welcome audiences back into the theatre, particularly with such a fun show. He also wanted to put minds at ease about safety, and explain the careful audience management measures put in place to let people enjoy the atmosphere of the historic theatre while not feeling overcrowded.
“We’ve worked very hard to get the theatre ready to welcome back the people of Bury St Edmunds into this wonderful community venue. It has always been an important part of the cultural life of the town and we want people to feel reassured that everything is being done to make sure that our audiences are not only safe but they also have a good time.
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“People need theatre, they need entertainment and the arts for their physical and mental wellbeing and we are here, ready, willing and able to supply that.”
He said that thanks to a generous grant from the Cultural Recovery Fund, the theatre has been able to upgrade its air handling system which means it's now able to pump much more fresh air around the auditorium during performances, enhancing safety measures still further.
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Owen added: “We are very aware that audiences have to build back their confidence and we have to show them what a safe place the theatre is. Capacity at the moment is about 120, which is roughly a third of our usual capacity – so that means that there is a lot of space around people including rows empty between every booking.”
He said that it was also very important to return with the right show. He felt that this modern staging of Around The World In 80 Days struck the right balance.
“What I wanted was something intensely theatrical. I felt that over the past 12 months audiences had had enough of zoom and technology, they had their fill of culture being filtered through screens. I wanted to produce something that could only happen live in a theatre, so this three-hander is ideal. The actors have to be constantly changing costume, running around the stage in order to move the story on – so it doesn’t feel as if this show could be presented in any other medium.
“I wanted something that was funny and joyful. I wanted people’s first experience of being back in a theatre again to be uplifting and I wanted to stage something that had a wide appeal.
“Around the World in 80 Days is perfect because it appeals to families but it also works for older audiences without children, it’s one of those rare shows that spans the whole age range. Also, I was very aware that because we didn’t get to do a pantomime last year we should do something that would appeal to a pantomime audience.”
Owen said he and the actors have had a lot of fun, creating much of the physical humour in the rehearsal room. They have also had to devise inventive ways to create a bridge between the stage and the auditorium.
“We have three very creative actors, and in rehearsal we are always asking ourselves: ‘How can we do this differently? How can we make this fun? And how can we harness the audience’s wonderful imagination?’
“We know that these wonderful changes of locale can’t be achieved through technical wizardry but it has to be on stage so it has to work in a way that sparks the imagination, which is a lot of fun.
“We have a fantastic designer called Amy Yardley who has come up with a beautiful set which is a Victorian drawing room one minute, the Reform Club the next and then a train or a ship, so this means that the whole play means that the play moves at such a speed. If anyone has seen the stage production of The 39 Steps will know what to expect.
“I love that feeling where one minute you are riding in a train carriage and the next you are on the back of an elephant. The design is virtually another character in the play.”
The story of Around The World In 80 Days celebrates the Victorian love of travel and adventure. Published in 1873, this throws a spotlight on the fact that for the first time people people could travel to far distant places and experiences the wonders of the world.
Victorian know-how had opened up the possibility of speedy, comfortable and safe travel across the globe. The completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad in America, the linking of the Indian railways across the sub-continent, and the opening of the Suez Canal were the breakthroughs that made the dreams of being able to travel the world a reality.
The staging of this play maybe modern, with minimal set and three actors constantly changing costume, but the story and the atmosphere of the Theatre Royal itself means that the theatre returns with a play that very much belongs in this historic theatre.
Around The World In 80 Days runs at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds from May 21 to June 5. Tickets can be booked online at the theatre’s website.