Follies goes on in spite of the cast’s off-stage dramas

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NOT even a heart attack and chemotherapy can stop an amateur show going on at the Theatre Royal this month.

Aptly, Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, being staged by the Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society, looks at the behind-the-scenes drama among the cast of Weismann Follies as they reunite at a provincial theatre – and the society’s cast has had drama of its own.

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When Jackie Strahm arrived at the auditions in a turban hat, people thought she was dressed up. “I said, no, I haven’t got any hair,” she recalls. It was only two weeks after her seventh and final chemo session for follicular non-Hodgkins lymphoma with which she was diagnosed while performing in the society’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, just nominated for a National Operatic and Dramatic Society award.

Why take on such a challenge at this time? Jackie said: “There’s so much support there and you have to move on and get on with it. It gives you something to focus on.”

Her incurable cancer is in remission, but she will need regular treatment. As Carlotta Campion she sings the solo I’m Still Here, which is so moving her husband Chris, who plays Ben Stone, found it difficult to listen in rehearsal.

The couple met at the society 15 years ago and were married in 1999. Two other couples in the show met through the society – Cary and Judith Thomas met in 1984 during Nanette and Phil and Joyce Amtower met playing sweethearts in Brigadoon the same year.

While Jackie knew she was ill before the auditions, Gloria Stewart only found out while she was performing.

Gloria, 77, has performed professionally and as an amateur since she was 19, but still gets audition nerves.

“When I get nervous I get indigestion so when I had a bit of pain I didn’t take much notice,” she said. “I’d learned it really well, but I sang the first line and my mind went blank.”

That worried her and, after reading something from a book, with the casting director suggesting it was just nerves, she left, but she was feeling so odd she decided it was sensible to drive to West Suffolk Hospital because it was closer than her home in Rickinghall.

There, she was quickly diagnosed as having had a heart attack and was kept in for four days before being transferred to Papworth Hospital near Cambridge for three more days of treatment.

“When I got home it said on my computer that they wanted to offer me the part of Emily,” she said. She also learned that her daughter Laura Stewart and granddaughter Grace Stewart-Hogg had been cast in the production.

Follies is on from April 24 to 28 at 7.30pm with a 2.30pm matinee on the 28th. Tickets are £7 to £19 from 01284 769505.