Director staging a comeback at historic ‘gem’ close to his heart
When Colin Blumenau walks on stage at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds next week it will feel like coming home.
One glance around the auditorium with its rich decoration and painted cloudscape ceiling will remind him why this architectural gem has a very special place in his heart.
Colin spent 16 years as artistic director of the theatre, and initiated the major restoration that returned the interior to its original Georgian style.
Now he is coming back to direct a play with the production company he founded after leaving Suffolk four years ago.
The Production Exchange, which encourages new talent in all aspects of theatre, is staging Lady Anna: All at Sea on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Upcoming writer Craig Baxter’s ingenious dramatisation of an episode in the life of novelist Anthony Trollope is set on board the SS Great Britain.
The celebrated 19th century author, on his way to visit his son in Australia, is writing his book Lady Anna.
As he pens the tale of love, intrigue, rebellion, and duty, fact and fiction start to overlap.
The play was commissioned by the Trollope Society for the bicentenary of the writer’s birth last year.
Some of his descendants travelled from Australia to see it on the first night.
Colin is not the only one of the company who will be enjoying a Bury homecoming.
Emily Slack, who trained with him at the Theatre Royal and co-founded The Production Exchange, is the play’s producer.
“She was brought up in the town, and I worked here for a long time, so we are coming back to a theatre which means so much to both of us,” he said. “There’s a nice synchronicity about it.”
The London-based Production Exchange is a registered charity that aims to help those starting out in theatrical professions.
“The aim is to help early-career professionals to develop their careers.
“They can be producers, actors, directors, designers, musicians ... our charitable objective is to support them.
“It means we have a very exciting portfolio of work.
“We have put on about 30 things so far, from read-throughs to full productions.”
The Theatre Royal, which dates from 1819, is the country’s third oldest theatre and the only one surviving from the Regency period.
It is one of only eight Grade One listed theatres in the country,
“It’s an incredibly valuable piece of architecture,” Colin adds.
He first arrived in Bury in 1996, already a very experienced actor, writer and director.
His acting credits include playing PC Taffy Edwards “the Welsh one” in the hugely popular crime drama The Bill.
He left after seven years. “I had done a long time on the show and felt it had come to a natural end,” he says.
“So Taffy was given marital problems and sent back to Wales.”
But his first TV job was in a mini-series called Jockey School – aptly so, as his childhood ambition was to be a jockey.
After 15 years he moved from acting to freelance writing and directing.
“Then I had three young children and realised I ought to have a proper job, so I applied for one in Wisbech and became artistic director of the theatre there.
“After that I did the same job at the Brewhouse in Taunton, then came to Bury.”
Colin is married to casting director Debbie O’Brien and they have three sons, Dan, Jack and Harry.
“Dan now works for Disney in Paris. Jack, who was a child actor and did quite a lot at Bury when I was there, is now an academic, and Harry is a freelance director.”
For Colin, starting work at the Theatre Royal a couple of years after the National Lottery began was a happy coincidence.
It meant a new source of cash was available for conservation and restoration projects involving the nation’s heritage.
And what better fitted the brief than returning Britain’s only working Regency theatre to its former splendour.
“We took advantage of what was available from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore it to its 1819 state and rediscover the repertoire of the time.
“We did around 10 productions of Georgian plays, and read 100 scripts.
“It was a terrific thing to be able to do, and very exciting.
“For me, it was really good timing to be there when it became possible to achieve it.”
“The building shut down for two years between 2005 and 2007, but we still produced work and sent it out.
Extensive detective work was needed to make sure the restoration was as authentic as possible.
It meant detailed research in the National Trust archives, and tracking down information in museums and libraries around the world.
“We took the auditorium right back to how it was in 1819, and built a bar and restaurant on the side.”
The restoration was the start of the latest chapter in the story of the theatre.
Designed by William Wilkins, the architect responsible for the National Gallery in London, it enjoyed early success.
But it declined towards the end of the 19th century despite staging the premiere of Charley’s Aunt in 1892.
In 1925, after years in the doldrums, it closed. Brewers Greene King, who bought the building in 1920, ended up using it as a barrel store.
Not until 1965, after a hard-fought campaign by local enthusiasts, did it reopen.