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Somethings Old, Somethings New in Bury This Autumn

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The one thing which the Theatre Royal at Bury St Edmunds never does is just to sit back simply to admire its historical and architectural laurels. The Restoring the Repertoire exploration of neglected late 18th and 19th century drama certainly continues, both with fully-staged productions and script-in-hand readings, but there’s an interesting mix of visiting companies and performance styles to engage the attention of the most up-to-date playgoer this autumn.

Each year the theatre takes a smaller-scale production to venues right across East Anglia. This year the choice falls on Michael Frayn’s The Two of Us, four short plays for two actors. They’re directed by Abigail Anderson in a design by Jane Linz Roberts. The tour begins at the theatre on 1 September and play there until 4 September; the tour itself lasts until 6 October.

Restored to the repertoire from 1 to 16 October is The London Merchant by George Lillo. It was first staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1731 and is an early example of the shift in English drama through the 18th century away from mythical and historical heroics (though they continued to be celebrated in blank verse and alexandrines) towards domestic drama centred on ordinary, albeit middle-class, people.

Lillo was a contemporary of Hogarth and this story of the downward spiral experienced by apprentice George Barnwell has its parallels in Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness sequence of 1747. Barnwell’s disintegration begins when he becomes entangled with Millwood, a woman of uncertain morals and a ferocious desire to revenge herself on men. Any man would do, but she settles on a much-admired youngster about to complete his apprenticeship. Colin Blumenau directs and the designs are by Kit Surrey, responsible for much of the theatre’s decorative aspects during its 2007 restoration.

A Georgian theatre weekend over 2 to 4 October includes a performance of the play as well as a reading of George Colman’s 1803 comedy John Bull, or, An Englishman’s Fireside. First staged in 1803 it offered its audience a comforting idea of the national character as the threat of invasion loomed. It is also the play which opened the theatre in October 1819. There are associated lectures on the history of theatre in Bury St Edmunds and guided tours of the Theatre Royal.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a pantomime and this year it’s Mother Goose, written by Daniel O’Brien – now I wonder whose penname that might be? – with original music and lyrics by Peter White. It’s directed by Abigail Anderson and designed by Will Hargreaves. It opens on 3 December and runs until Sunday 16 January with a gala matinee performance on Sunday 12 December. As pantomime stories go, this is one of the slightly more unusual ones, though we’re promised tap-dancing goslings as well as a certain golden egg.

The first of September’s visiting companies is Half Hour Call Theatre Productions from the 6th to the 8th with Don’t Stop Me Now. This is a compilation programme devoted to modern musicals; the company is a new one planning to specialise in musical theatre. From Out of Joint and the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith comes The Big Fellah from 14 to 18 September. Richard Bean’s play about divided loyalties in New York’s Irish American community is directed by Max Stafford Clark. Hull Truck make a return visit between 20 and 25 September to take us back to school with Teechers by John Godber.

George Orwell's 1984 is directed by Conrad Nelson for Northern Broadsides and the Duke’s Theatre Lancaster in association with the Stroud Theatre Company. It runs from 9 to 13 November. There are also script-in-hand readings of two 19th century plays which also address matters political on 11 November. Reform by William Thomas Moncrieff (who notoriously dramatised Dickens’ Pickwick Papers without the author’s permission) was staged in 1831, just before the Reform Act of 1832 passed into law and widened the franchise. John Walker’s The Factory Lad is an 1832 melodrama. Both are directed by Abigail Anderson.

Quite apart from the pantomime, young theatre-goers are not neglected. How the Koala Learnt to Hug on 24 September and Mike Kerry’s Scarecrow from ajtc Theatre Company on 26 and 27 October are on offer. Soloists from the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company join with the audience for The Pirates of Penzance From Scratch on 11 September, Suffolk Opera presents Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène from 18 to 20 November and Ballet Theatre UK perform Cinderella from 22 to 24 November and The Nutcracker on 25 November.


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