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They’re still singing their hearts out ... 114 years after first show

Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society - Guys and Dolls cast
Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society - Guys and Dolls cast

A drunk lurches past, ladies of easy virtue strike seductive poses, a flasher does what flashers do, and an evangelical choir – singing on through the chaos – urges them all to “stray no more”.

In a Suffolk church hall, a scene from the musical Guys and Dolls is gradually coming together.

The production is shaping up ready to erupt on stage next month in a burst of music, colour and fancy footwork.

Working out the moves are director Simon Bowen and choreographer Heather Couch, a former professional dancer.

The flying fingers of the musical director, teacher Simon Pearce, belt out the score from a piano in the corner.

Guys and Dolls is the latest project of Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society.

From The Mikado to Grease, the society has brought light opera and musicals to the town for well over a century.

It was founded in 1902 and staged its first production, Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, in 1903.

Praise in the local press was fulsome, reporting the society made its debut “under the happiest and most promising circumstances”.

These days, its rich history is in the hands of archivist Joan Abbs.

She joined in the 1970s, and took on responsibility for the records when she stopped performing 10 years ago.

It has taken her countless hours to sort 115 years of programmes, scrapbooks and documents into easily-accessible files.

At first, the productions were mostly Gilbert and Sullivan. Musicals were soon included with two shows a year, and often a play as well.

The son of one 1920s member went on to be the foremost British theatre director of his generation.

On the society’s centenary, Sir Peter Hall wrote that he owed it a debt of gratitude because his father Reg’s love of performing was passed on to him.

Performances took place at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds until it closed in 1924, when the group was moved to the now-gone Playhouse Cinema.

When the theatre was saved, the society returned, staged the first production after it reopened in 1964, and has been there ever since.

Suffolk-based actor Roy Hudd – recently seen on TV as Olivia Colman’s dad in Broadchurch – is the group’s patron.

Among its awards from the National Operatic and Dramatic Association is best production in the east region for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in 2011.

It also supports charities, donating £3,000 to Cancer Research in 2016. Members are doing the charity’s Relay for Life again this year.

Multi-tasking is the norm for some stalwarts of the society, which has 70 active members.

Treasurer Tracy Dougherty, a chartered accountant, appears in Guys and Dolls, and is also in charge of costumes and programmes.

The show is a dressing-up dream, with showgirl outfits and gangster-style suits – all swishing skirts and trilby hats tilted at jaunty angles.

Some costumes are made by Tracy and her helpers. Others are hired, come from the society’s own store, or from charity shops.

“A lot of hard work goes into a show backstage,” she says. “Sometimes we make the sets ourselves.

“My father, a retired carpenter, built a house for Legally Blonde and members including our president were down there painting.”

Rachelle Curtis, social secretary, PR, and Miss Adelaide in the show, was “plonked on stage as a mouse in Cinderella” aged four.

“My family was very involved in a drama society,” says the paediatric occupational therapist who fits acting, singing and dancing around a demanding career and doing a masters degree.

“Joining our society is also a great way to make friends and meet people,” she adds.

Will Cahill, with a lead role in Guys and Dolls as big-time gambler Sky, says he is still in shock at getting the part.

The Walsham-le-Willows primary school teaching assistant was in his first show last year. But having stepped on stage, he is hooked.

“As soon as one show finishes, I’ll be waiting for the next audition,” he says.

He and Jamie Maguire, playing gambler Nicely, agree “post-show blues” kick in because everyone misses the cameraderie of rehearsals and performances.

Jamie, a business intelligence analyst, comes from a family of amateur drama addicts and also enjoys directing.

Cath Harvey has danced since she was four and has choreographed three shows for the society. This time she is on stage as one of Guys and Dolls’ Hotbox dancers.

“A friend took me to a youth drama group when I was 11. I got the bug and have done it ever since,” she says.

“Great characters and great music are always a thrilling combination,” says Guys and Dolls director Simon Bowen.

His job managing the produce department of a supermarket sounds a big contrast to bringing a musical to life.

“It means by day I’m arranging the display of fruit and veg, and by night the cast of Guys and Dolls,” he says.

Guys and Dolls, sponsored by LMA Stage School, is at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, from May 9 to 13. For information on the society, go to www.burystedmundsoperatic.co.uk.

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