FEATURE: Enthralled by a labour of love
The history of Bury St Edmunds’ Theatre Royal has been brought to life on stage this month with an original performance telling its struggle to reopen 50 years ago.
I was lucky enough to gain a place within this truly special production as the band’s clarinettist.
From the first band call and throughout the performances, the feeling of being involved in something incredibly fresh but also deeply embedded in the history of my area was both humbling and elating.
Everyone on the stage, below it and behind it has been touched the play’s infectious energy, myself included, which is borne from its swift creation and the passionate belief in the project coursing through the theatre.
The play’s story began last November, when writer Danusia Iwaszko was contacted by Karen Simpson, theatre director and the play’s director, and got stuck into the project.
“I started researching and all these people started coming out of the woodwork,” the Bury-based writer said.
“I had to meet all the characters, but we got them all together and it mushroomed. We didn’t know who these people were, but when you find out how they did it, it’s awesome.
“The research was massive but fantastic. As it emerged you thought, wow, what a story.”
At the opening of the Theatre Royal’s autumn season in June, during which a section of A Labour of Love was performed, Karen said: “Some of the struggles and the fights and the feelings we have for the theatre and the arts are the same as the people we are trying to recreate.
“It is very much about our town and the community with live and work in. We wanted to see if there was a story to be told about the reopening, and in fact we found thousands.”
Although not initially intended as a musical play, Dani realised after the first draft reading that it needed music.
“I thought it was working but it lacked the main theme, which is why have a theatre in a small town,” she said. “We couldn’t write it in dialogue, but we could sing it.
“But I’m so glad I didn’t write it as a musical play to begin with, because it would have been driven by the music’s needs.”
She decided on Phil Gostelow as the musical director, despite never having met or spoken to him but only glimpsed him at work during the theatre’s 2014 pantomime, on which he was also musical director.
“I could see he was a grafter, it’s a rare thing and it’s what is important in life,” said Dani.
During their first contact, a phone call, the pair plotted out the first three songs, a great demonstration of their relentless creative energy and dynamism.
Phil, who had only been sent the script for A Labour of Love a few days before, said: “I’d had a few thoughts, so we talked about the style and made sure we were on the same page.
“I was doing a show in Shrewsbury at the time and the only time I had access to the piano was in the pit. I was writing music in the fifteen minutes before the house opened in the evening, whispering lyrics to Dani down the phone.
“We met in the Guildhall [in Bury] for a day in mid May and wrote ten songs. By 5pm we were workshopping with the actors. There was no room for ego in any way, from either of us.”
Dani added: “It usually takes years to build a relationship like that, but we just ploughed on and somehow a show appeared.”
The pair conceded there were some ‘up to the hilt’ moments, with songs still being thrown out four weeks into rehearsals and Phil spending many late nights orchestrating the band’s parts.
“It has real energy and spirit,” Dani said. “You can fiddle about until the cows come home and not get something that good.”
“It was manically quick, but we both believed the songs should be a nice tune with a nice lyric,” said Phil.
“Both Dani and I have our own voices, and I think the play has its own voice as well.”
Dani added: “It’s a very special play, and it was very special to be a part of it.”
I can wholeheartedly say I echo Dani’s sentiment. Despite the sheer speed of the production’s creation - from first rehearsals to a ten-show run in ten weeks, with the first band call just two days before opening night - the determination and combined energy of everyone involved helped it forward.
From my position in the orchestra pit my version of the play is purely audio, but even without visual stimuli it overflows with passion.
For the cast, directors, musicians and crew, as it was for the Theatre Royal’s saviours 50 years ago, it has been a labour of love.