The Theatre Royal at Bury St. Edmunds made national news three years ago when the Heritage Lottery Fund agreed to a plan to fully restore the only Regency theatre left basically intact in the country. Two years after the project’s completion, it gleams. Murals of the muses based on ones known at related theatres decorate the proscenium, while clouds and a wide blue East Anglian sky cover the auditorium ceiling.
So what was the theatre like for the original audiences? Smelly, the theatre press officer, Lucy Close, told me. The boxes which now hold six with the aisle filled with a fold-out seat would once have held sixteen and people smoked and drank beer through the plays (all four hours of them). The theatre was designed to be a social centre for the local gentry; the box which was originally the most expensive was at right-angles to the stage to give the audience a better view of its occupants (it’s now the cheapest) and the circulating space outside the boxes was made large to give them somewhere to talk (not for everyone, of course: the theatre originally had separate entrances, with critics naturally going in with the working classes).
Tobacco and lamps would not have been the only sources of smoke: the large amount of space under the stage is a reminder of gadget-crazed audiences who had the pleasure of watching windmills burn down on stage, as well as wind, lightning and boats crossing stormy seas, and the theatre puts on regular readings of plays from the period (to which, the Artistic Director, Colin Blumenau was pleased to tell me, a loyal and mostly local audience comes). The only theatre in the country which is a National Trust property, it is leased from Greene-King, whose massive brewery over the road dwarfs it, and it is run by a charitable company.
This historical significance makes it architecturally fascinating, but also brings problems compared to running the huge Victorian theatres that long ago replaced its contemporaries. When I asked Blumenau what his problems were, he didn’t hesitate: “We’re half the size of the Oxford Playhouse.” It had been a jerky interview up till then, my questions mumbled and hesitant from getting up at five that morning, his answers as clipped as possible (the theatre had been putting on the Christmas panto for two weeks twice-daily and he could only spare ten minutes from a meeting to speak to me) and Close often breaking in to explain to me what his short sentences meant with answers four or five times as long, but that question suddenly made his answers start to flow. The 360-seat theatre is too small for many touring companies to accept, Blumenau explained, and he had to be careful what he chose-“you’re buying in stuff unseen and…to keep the audience coming…you’ve got to keep the quality up”. Strikingly, however, he praised the Heritage Lottery Fund for being willing to back a total restoration programme over less ambitions options. My feeling, reading through their programme, is that they’ve been successful so far, with a far more interesting mix of plays than most local theatres offer, appropriately for such a distinctive, beautiful theatre.