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FEATURE: Bury St Edmunds’ Theatre Royal is still fabulous at 50

By Paul Brackley

Theatre Royal ENGANL00120121211162812
Theatre Royal ENGANL00120121211162812

Turning 50 can be a troublesome time, as advancing years cause contemplation, but the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds is viewing this anniversary with enthusiasm.

Before its reopening in 1965 the building, in Westgate Street, had an uneasy ride. Bought by Greene King in 1920, it was used as a barrel store by the brewing giant for more than 30 years until a campaign for its restoration was launched in 1959.

Spectators at the Theatre Royal, in Bury St Edmunds, after its refurbishment and reopening in 1965 ANL-150502-164645001
Spectators at the Theatre Royal, in Bury St Edmunds, after its refurbishment and reopening in 1965 ANL-150502-164645001

After fierce campaigning and £37,000 of fund-raising, the Theatre Royal was repoened with a glitering reception on April 1 1965.

The Theatre Royal’s heritage officer, Isobel Keith, said it was the combined efforts of Bury’s amateur dramatic societies which saved the theatre.

“They were the steeering heads behind the campaign,” she said.

“We are still researching to find out more about the period and build up a better picture - it has a very chequered history around that time.”

The Theatre Royal as a Greene King barrel store in the mid-20th century ANL-150502-164718001
The Theatre Royal as a Greene King barrel store in the mid-20th century ANL-150502-164718001

As part of the Theatre Royal’s multi-faceted golden anniversary celebrations, a team of researchers is working to create an archive about its 20th century history and the five-year restoration campaign.

Isobel is also working on an oral history of the theatre, speaking to those who were involved in or remember its rebirth. She is making an appeal for people to share their memories with her.

“Things written down only tell you so much - the things people can tell you matter as well,” she said.

“We’re building a list of people who were involved with the restoration committee or fundraising, or those who first trod the boards, but they have to come to us to say, ‘I remember that’.”

A reunion event, hosted by the theatre for those who remembered the reopening, attracted around 40 people and a lot of stories.

Isobel strongly believes technical information is not the way to engage people in a building’s past.

“It is the personal stories and familiarity that people connect with,” she said.

“We can still make connections with these projects because the theatre’s reopening is still in living memory.”

The commemorations do not stop at documentation. Playwright Danusia Iwaszko is creating a theatrical reenactment of the campaign and reopening, drawing on stories from the community.

The currently untitled play will run in the Theatre Royal from July 16 to 26, and there will soon be a call for volunteers to act in or help with it.

Isobel also plans to run an exhibition on the theatre’s reascention to glory. To aid this she is appealing for any old photographs or theatre programmes people may have from the restoration and reopening period.

The celebrations are also stretching outside the theatre, with community projects and workshops planned for residents and local schools.

Isobel hopes this project will include the creation of a video diary to show at the end of the anniversary celebrations in October.

Despite the vague nature of some celebratory projects at this stage, Isobel is quite clear on the message behind them.

“It is a story about the local community, almost more than the theatre itself,” she said.

“If that group of people had not banded together and been led with such enthusiasm and gusto, would the theatre have come back to life?

“We can’t tell the story of the theatre without the community it is for. It is their history as much as the theatre’s.”

If you’re interested in volunteering or sharing your memories of the theatre’s reopening, contact Isobel Keith on 01284 769505 or email isobel@theatreroyal.org.


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