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From Stockholm to Skopje via Colchester

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Midsummer’s night is usually thought to be a time of fantasy, but Dee Evans, the artistic director of Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, chose it to proclaim an up-beat note of theatrical reality. In the past financial year, the theatre has benefited the wider local economy to the tune of £4 million, over 121,000 people attended close on 400 performances, including 26,580 for the pantomime alone. What’s more, over 43,000 people saw a production originating at the Mercury elsewhere in the UK.

An impressive sequence of statistics, given the size of the theatre. If you thought that the spring and early summer season offered an almost bewildering variety of shows and production styles, then the late summer and early 2011 programme suggests an even more adventurous mix. The first of the home-grown productions is Stockholm by Bryony Lavery, who wrote the chilling psychological drama Frozen. It is about the relationship between a young man and woman as a birthday celebration looms. It will be performed between 16 September and 2 October in the Mercury’s Studio Theatre.

Next comes a dramatisation by Frank Galati of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. Five years ago, the company had a great success with Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; this new production is directed by Tony Casement, one of the theatre’s associate artists, and runs from 15 to 30 October. November brings a Harold Pinter double-bill – A Slight Ache from 1961 and The Lover which dates from two years later. Director Gari Jones worked closely with Pinter for a number of years. You can puzzle it out for yourselves from 4 to 20 November.

December ushers in the annual panto. There seems to be a sort of osmosis as far as pantomimes are concerned; one story seems to be the dominant one each year right across the region. This time the favourite title seems to be Aladdin, with the Mercury’s special take on the tale being written and directed by Janice Dunn, an expert in such things. It opens on 3 December and runs through to 8 January. There are a number of matinee performances as well as evening ones, including Boxing Day – Sunday 26 December.

Colchester has had an international as well as a military dimension from the first century. In the 21st this has developed into programme and cast exchanges and the Mercury has been instrumental in setting up InterACT, a consortium of 26 theatre companies and festivals across Europe, North America and Asia. Stockholm is travelling to Skopje in Macedonia in early October and NI Drama Theater Skopje is bringing its new staging of Hamlet directed by Dejan Projkovski with Dejan Lilich in the title role to the Mercury between 29 September and 2 October.

The visiting company programme begins with Ian Dickens’s production of Love’s a Luxury by Guy Paxton and Edward V Hoile starring Giles Watling and David Callister as a brace of thespians with woman trouble. That’s on from 31 August to 4 September and is followed by Peter Gordon’s Murdered to Death directed by Watling and already reviewed for the WoS website at the start of its national tour. The Colchester run is from 6 to 11 September.

From the Comedy Theatre Company comes the stage version of a television comedy classic – Keeping Up Appearances. It’s written by the series creator Roy Clarke and is about the irrepressibly snobbish Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) played by Rachel Bell who becomes involved in a local am-dram production. The cast includes Kim Hartman, Gareth Hale and Steven Pinder and you can follow Hyacinth’s determined attempts to secure a plum role for herself between 20 and 25 September. By way of contrast, the post-panto New Year brings a co-production with Tilted of Masquerade, directed and choreographed by Maresa von Stockert. On 22 January 2011 you can be challenged by a provocative exploration of the differences between how we see ourselves and how others see us.

The Studio hosts a variety of short runs, beginning between 8 and 11 September with Bunny by Jack Thorne. I saw this at Pulse last month when it was called The Siege and still very much a work-in-progress. Nabokov’s presentation is in association with Watford’s Palace Theatre. Another show with Hertfordshire rather than Essex connexions is Burn My Heart from the Trestle Theatre Company in St Albans in collaboration with Blindeye. It’s an adaptation by Rina Vergano of the novel by Beverley Naidoo and is set in Kenya during the 1950s. 12 and 13 November sees it in Colchester.

Menagerie is a Cambridge-based company with a reputation for staging new writing of a high calibre. Its new double-bill of political plays from 18 to 20 November has the collective title Peacemakers!. Four for Jericho is by Richard Fredman and Tongues is by Fraser Grace, whose King David has just finished its Mercury run. 18 to 20 November are the dates for this double-bill.

Anne Fitzmaurice is the author of The Fragility of X to be directed by John Wright for Coal in association with the Royal Exchange Theatre Studio, Manchester. It’s about a woman and her teenage autistic son and you can see it on 23 and 24 November. The HAL Company is working with the Mercury to present Headlands from 20 to 22 January. Danusia Iwaszko is the writer of this new piece which explores the difference between our everyday interaction with other people and what goes on in those most private of places – our individual minds.

The Mercury takes its work with and for its local community very seriously and always has a full programme of shows involving young people and their families as well as professional productions for child audiences. 25 to 28 August sees the youth theatre festival FRESH in which young actors present two very different plays – Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen and Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle; the former is directed by Tony Casement} and the latter by [Gari Jones} assisted by Miranda Bell. The children’s shows are Strange Stones which tells the story of the girl who first found dinosaur fossils at Lyme Regis (25 October), Handas’s Surprise based on Eileen Browne’s book (26 and 27 October), Why the Lion Danced in celebration of the Chinese New Year (11 January) and a Mike Moran adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol (13 January). Who said that Christmas only comes once a year?


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