Feature: The inspiring tale of the Theatre Royal to be told in anniversary play
Some coincidences 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.
That’s how it has felt since the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds began putting together a production to mark a milestone in its history,
This month dozens of Suffolk people will put their hearts and souls into staging the story of how, 50 years ago, campaigners fulfilled their 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 those involved in the 1960s fight to reopen the building, the more the present seemed to echo the past.
“There were so many incredible parallels,” says Danusia Iwaszko, who has written the 50th anniversary production.
One happened as she researched Olga Ironside Wood – former West Suffolk drama advisor and leading lady of the campaign.
Flamboyant, theatrical, a true grande dame, the playwright and ex-professional actress was passionately committed to drama and education and renowned for ambitious productions and pageants.
“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 pupils what they had for breakfast. One girl said a fried egg, so we got on the floor and pretended to be fried eggs.
“That young girl was Hattie Ashton, now 22, who plays restoration committee secretary Margaret Statham 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 then found out Rebecca was the great-niece of Air Vice Marshall Stanley Vincent – another driving force in the theatre story.
AVM, as he was known, was a war hero and the only British pilot to shoot down enemy aircraft in both world wars.
“Uncle Stanley put a huge amount of work into the project,” said Bury-born Rebecca. “Whenever I went to the theatre as a child I was proud to see his name there.”
She 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,” she said.
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.
Putting the story on the stage was her idea. When she arrived in Bury in 2013 everyone was talking about the theatre’s 200th anniversary in 2019.
“Then someone told me it had reopened 50 years ago, and I realised it was a massively important story that articulates why the theatre still matters today,” she said.
“It’s a fantastic privilege to work with so many local people , and do something you really, really believe in.”
The play became a musical when Danusia realised spoken dialogue didn’t quite capture the feelings of the characters.
Phil Gostelow, musical director for the theatre’s pantomimes, joined the team to provide the music.
Some of the cast find the play mirrors their own memories, like Sue Harrington-Spier who grew up in Bury during the theatre campaign. Olga, a client of her solicitor father, became her mentor and lifelong friend.
“I’m reliving history,” said Sue. “ I would never have imagined that 50 years later I would be able to honour her in this way.”