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FEATURE: New play celebrates Theatre Royal’s golden anniversary

theatre royal front of building ANL-150624-184637001
theatre royal front of building ANL-150624-184637001

Some coinicidences can be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders. Others send a shiver down your spine ... even if they involve something as mundane as a fried egg.

And that’s how it has felt since the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds began putting together a production to celebrate a milestone in its history,

theatre royal 50th anniversary play A Labour of Love poster ANL-150623-155623001
theatre royal 50th anniversary play A Labour of Love poster ANL-150623-155623001

This month dozens of Suffolk people will put their hearts and souls into staging the story of how 50 years ago campaigners fulfilled a dream of giving the town back its theatre.

Packed with drama, emotion, music, and a cast of characters many people will remember, A Labour of Love is as aptly titled for those taking part as for the people it portrays.

But as more details emerged about the men and women involved in the 1960s fight to reopen the historic building, the more the present seemed to echo the past.

“There were so many incredible parallels,” says playwright Danusia Iwaszko, who has written the 50th anniversay production.

Theatre Royal after restoration ANL-150623-153634001
Theatre Royal after restoration ANL-150623-153634001

One of the strangest happened when Danusia was researching Olga Ironside Wood – former West Suffolk drama advisor and leading lady of the campaign to restore the theatre.

Flamboyant, theatrical, a true grande dame, the playwright and former professional actress was passionately committed to drama and education and was renowned for ambitious dramatic productions and pageants.

Danusia’s discovery was more homespun. “Someone told me the first time he saw Olga she was being a fried egg on stage.

“When he said that I really got a shiver. I used to teach drama and in one lesson I’d asked the pupils what they had for breakfast. One girl said a fried egg, so we all got down on the floor and pretended to be fried eggs.

“That young girl was Hattie Ashton, now 22, who is playing Margaret Statham, secretary of the restoration committee, in the production.”

There was a similar moment for Sue Harrington-Spier, who knew Olga from childhood and is also in the play.

She persuaded her friend, actress Rebecca Peyton, to take part, and only then found out Rebecca was the great-niece of Air Vice Marshall Stanley Vincent – another powerful driving force in the theatre story.

AVM, as he was known, was a much-decorated war hero and the only British pilot to shoot down enemy aircraft in both world wars.

“I had no idea of the connection,” says Sue.

Bury-born Rebecca plays Ethel Groat, Olga’s friend and supporter, and the person who first showed her the theatre which had closed in the 1920s and become a barrel store for the Greene King Brewery.

She takes great pride in her uncle’s role in bringing it back to life. “Uncle Stanley put a huge amount of work into the project. Whenever I went to the theatre as a child I was proud to see his name there,” she says.

Rebecca strongly backs the decision of Karen Simpson, Theatre Royal director and chief executive, to find a role in A Labour of Love for everyone who wanted to be involved.

“It seems to me that Karen in some way inhabits Olga’s spirit in this matter as she really knows how to help people develop their performance regardless of whether they’d call themselves an actor or not,” she says.

And she is not the only one who sees a similarity between the two women.

“Karen is like a reincarnation of Olga because she really believes in community theatre,” says Sue.

And Karen herself says everyone involved feels incredibly close to the original campaigners: “There are things that keep happening to us in different ways at different times. We feel a very strong link to these people.”

Putting the story on to the stage was her idea.

When she arrived in Bury in 2013 – realising a long-held ambition to run a venue rather than a touring company – everyone was talking about the theatre’s 200th anniversary in 2019.

It is famous as the UK’s last surviving working Regency playhouse.

“But I was also interested in the recent history, that people can connect to,” she says.

“Someone told me it reopened 50 years ago, so I asked a couple of people about it, and realised it was a massively important story that articulates why the theatre still matters today.

“Why did a group of people in the early 1960s think it was still important? Why are we fighting to keep the Theatre Royal alive today? Without the people it’s just a building.

“I thought, this is an amazing opportunity for a new director.

“It gives me an opportunity to re-engage people, and put the theatre back on the map.”

The company put together for A Labour of Love range from professional actors to some who have never been on stage before.

“I never asked anyone auditioning ‘what is your background’,” says Karen. “We have about 45 people aged from 12 to late 70s, all from a 20-mile radius of Bury, plus another 10 backstage. One of the biggest jobs is creating all the 1960s costumes.

“It’s a fantastic privilege to work with so many people locally, and do something you really, really believe in.”

A grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has helped to fund the production.

Danusia, whose CV includes a spell as attached writer at the National Theatre and who has lived in Bury for eight years, was commissioned to write the play.

She found so many people had stories to tell about the restoration she had to call a halt after 25 interviews.

But putting the feelings of the characters into dialoge was causing her problems. “I realised the words didn’t to ring true,” she said.

Then, driving home late at night from London, where she was working on a musical, inspiration struck. This had to be a musical, too.

“You can sing about your passion for the theatre, you can’t just say it,” she says.

Phil Gostelow, who for two years has been musical director for the theatre’s pantomimes, joined the team to provide the music.

For some cast members the action on stage mirrors their own memories.

Sue Harrington-Spier was growing up in Bury during the theatre campaign. She was desperate to be an actress at a time when ‘solicitors’ daughters didn’t become actresses’.

Olga, a client of her father, became her mentor and friend, encouraging her to take part in her productions and go on to drama school.

“What is so odd for me is that I’m reliving history,” says Sue, who plays theatre supporter Miriam Land – someone she remembers from her childhood – in the anniversary production.

“Olga was an Army wife, and didn’t really need to work. She did it for love. She was warm and passionate and acted on her convictions.

“She was flamboyant, a ‘dame formidable’ with a large personality. As a child I was a bit scared of her, then I had to break through the barrier and treat her as an equal instead of with a certain amount of awe.

“She was not just a mentor but a loyal loving friend. I would never have imagined that 50 years later I would be able to honour her in this way.”

But Olga’s devotion to the Theatre Royal did not have a fairytale ending.

Her dream of a community theatre with amateur actors was over-ruled. When, after a six-year campaign, it eventually opened she was given no role in its management.

A Labour of Love is on at the Theatre Royal from July 16 to 25, Tickets cost £10 from the box office on 01284 769505, or the website www.theatreroyal.org. There will be a gala night (black tie) on July 17 when tickets will be £15 including a programme and a glass of Prosecco.

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