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Upbeat and Upcoming in Colchester

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She didn’t actually say it, but the message from Dee Evans, the artistic director of Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, at the launch of the spring programme on Twelfth Night was “Are we down-hearted? No! Of course not!!”. Indeed, the overall impression was one of an undiminished sense of confidence and of almost excited expectation of the challenges ahead.

There is, of course, the inevitable diminution in Arts Council and borough council funding, so that the theatre has between £140-150,000 less to spend in 2011. Essex County Council, however, has a serious, long-term commitment towards investing in the arts and has limited its cut in the forthcoming financial year to three per cent.

Good housekeeping in administrative as well as artistic terms means that the Mercury is in advance with its reviews for its funding bodies and can concentrate on the next three-year period. The usual amount of work for artists who are Mercury regulars is being maintained though cast lists for individual shows are being trimmed slightly – but only where appropriate.

European Union funding for the international aspects of the Mercury’s work continues and an “unsolicited and substantial donation” means that the theatre can further develop its work with and for people with disabilities. That sense of confidence I mentioned is reflected in the theatre’s company production season ticket offer.

Book for all three main-house plays and you can save 20 pr cent on the ticket prices. What’s more, a partial refund could be available if you think one of the plays was really not worth the price…mind you, reasons for this have to be clearly stated! Pay What You Can nights, post-performance Talk Back sessions and the free Front Row initiative, where the cast of a play faces its potential audience’s questions during the final rehearsal week, continue.

Between 24 February and 12 March there is a new production of Sheridan’s The Rivals, directed by Gari Jones. He sees a parallel between the national situation in the 1770s and the present decade – both with insiders and outsiders, the very rich and the extremely poor. It’s not a case of ruthlessly updating the text, the settings or the costumes, more of drawing the audience to engage fully with the comedy and its contrasted cast of characters.

That’s followed from 14 to 30 April by A View from the Bridge which director Janice Dunn sees as completing the Mercury’s trilogy of plays about the US in the 20th century; the others being Death of a Salesman (also by Arthur Miller) and last year’s . As with Miller’s The Crucible the germ of the drama was a true-life story, though A View employs the device of a narrator bridging the worlds of observer and participant and has something of the inevitability of classic Greek tragedy as it swirls to its climax.

Both these are plays with which you are probably familiar already. But hands-up who has seen Simon Turley’s Assumption before. Evans, who wants to concentrate more now on the artistic side of her career, first directed it some 15 years ago for a small-scale West Country touring theatre. It’s set in rural Ireland and tells the story of a young girl who finds herself pregnant; she maintains without the usual human intervention. Designer Sara Perks was heard murmuring darkly about peat bogs.

A studio production of Wretch is being developed by Jones, who also performs it. This could well be the next Mercury production to go on its mainland Europe travels. Initial performances are between 16 and 18 June. Also in the studio is Guy Masterson’s adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm, directed by Tony Boncza and performed by Mercury regular Gary Shelford. 4 and 5 July for this show.

Visiting companies in the main auditorium include Middle Ground with Prescription: Murder, the first case solved by Lieutenant Colombo (played by John Guerrasio, as the dishevelled detective confronts a clever killer, who just happens to be a doctor. 7 to 12 February are the dates. Then there’s a co-production between the Oldham Coliseum, Harrogate Theatre and Anvil Arts in Basingstoke of Coward’s Private Lives. ,Robin Herford] directs this from 15 to 19 March.

A new production company is Talking Scarlet whose director Patric Kearns seems already to be attracting well-known actors to his choice of plays. The Chosen Ones is a dark psychological chiller by Philip Gladwin with Jennifer Biddall, Stephen Beckett and Ben Freeman in the cast from 4 to 9 April. Second helpings are dished up by the comedy team of Dinnerladies from 20 to 25 June with original television cast members Sue Devaney and Andrew Dunn.

Comedy and thrills combine in the Ian Dickens staging of Jack Popplewell’s Busybody, in which an office charwoman finds a body – which then goes missing. Gemma Bissix stars. You can attempt to solve the mystery for yourself between 11 and 16 July. Over in the studio The Double Bass is a one-man show by Patrick Süskind performed by Christopher Hunter from 17 to 19 February, the story of an orchestral musician in crisis.

The UK premiére of Tennessee Williams’ letters adapted by Steve Lawson as A Distant Country Called Youth is a Through the Looking Glass co-production with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford between 3 and 5 March. Trestle Unmasked has developed a style of physical theatre which nevers relegates the text to second-best or third-place; The Birthday of the Infanta from Wilde’s short story plays on 1 and 2 April.

Easter falls late this year. On 23 April the evening show in the studio is Josh’s Monsters from the Multi Story Theatre Company in association with Beaford Arts. A husband and wife react very differently to their soldier son’s imminent posting to Afghanistan. Another co-production, this time between the Future Ruins Theatre Company and Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre, is the improvisation Exterminating Angel, inspired by the surrealist film maker Luis Buñuel on 10 and 11 May.

Children – those vital regular theatre-goers of the future – have their own line-up of varied shows in both the main house and the studio. The Science Museum in London takes to the road (and the stage) with Science Museum Live on Tour on 1 and 2 April with early evening performances on both days and a matinée on the Saturday. An explosive entertainment is promised (roll over, Horrible Science), so be prepared for live demonstrations and experiments.

Rather gentler is David Wood’s adaptation of the BBC series about Shaun the Sheep in Shaun’s Big Show for the week 3 to 7 May with some evening as well as matinee performances. In the studio Tam Tam Theatre Company draws Circles in the Sand on 18 and 19 April for the under-threes, Multi Story have two matinee performances of The Twelve Wild Ducks on 23 April (be careful what you wish for, even if you’re a queen) and Lyngo Theatre Company show us where dreams collect on the other side of the mirror with the help of The Dust Man on 3 and 4 June.

An equally exciting programme is already being planned for the autumn season. Watch this space. And definitely watch this stage.


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