Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds to celebrate 50th anniversary year with memories of playhouse
- Credit: Archant
It is easy for the arts to be seen as “surplus to requirements,” but campaigners valued their theatre in Bury St Edmunds so much they fought hard half a century ago to bring it back.
A number of these passionate people came to Bury’s Theatre Royal - the only working Regency playhouse in the country - on Saturday to share recollections as part of a piece of work to record these important ‘oral histories’ before they are lost forever.
The theatre, which is owned by brewing company Greene King and is leased to the National Trust, closed in 1925 when it became a barrel store, and following restoration works it officially reopened in 1965.
Paul Lainchbury, 81, from Bury, who came along on Saturday with his wife Pamela, 86, was an actor who also worked at the brewery, and was also involved in fundraising efforts to bring the theatre back.
He said: “I would come across from the brew house to rehearse my lines [in the barrel store] if I wasn’t doing anything too exciting in the brewery. And if it was a fine day I used to go onto the roof of the brewery.
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“In those days of course there were no floors in the theatre, just mud floors. Only barrels were stored in there, nothing else.”
Mr Lainchbury and his wife were in a one-act play festival in the spring of 1964 and got married later that year.
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June, 67, and Roger Ballam, 73, from Bury, were “courting” when they came to their first show at the theatre in November 1965 - ‘Carousel’ put on by the Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society.
Mrs Ballam said: “We were just wondering if it was cardboard scenery. I just remember that was lovely, and the actresses were so good.”
Money from the Heritage Lottery Fund is being put towards the 50th anniversary project, including to commission a new play by local playwrite Danusia ‘Danny’ Iwaszko with the brief ‘from barrel store to theatre’.
The theatre’s director, Karen Simpson, said the project would put the venue at the heart of the local community by people engaging with its history and taking ownership of it.
Heritage officer at the theatre, Isobel Keith, said: “I would say the project is really about the community and the community who pulled together to refurbish and reopen the theatre.”
Anyone who has links with the re-opening but could not make the reunion can email email@example.com with their details.
The Theatre Royal closed for three years in the 1900s, but 1925 saw the start of 40 years of darkness.
The playhouse was shut due to overwhelming competition from two new cinemas, and Greene King - which by now had the freehold - turned it into a barrel store.
It remained this way until the 1960s when a group from the community, led by Air Vice Marshall Stanley Vincent, a member of the Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society (BSEAODS), managed to raise almost £40,000 to restore the theatre.
Joan Abbs, archivist for BSEAODS, said the society’s first play there following closure was Blithe Spirit in May 1964, before all the restoration work was completed.
She said the proceeds from this production, as well as others by BSEAODS, went towards the restoration fund.
“The society had a big part to play in the restoration of the theatre and other groups did too,” she said.
Other fundraisers included Lawford Smith, from Bury, who put on a recital at Tollgate School in 1961 to help with the fundraising.
Christopher Spicer, a former St Edmundsbury Mayor, created a film in 1965 which he said raised £12.50 - the cost of half a theatre seat.