16 February 2022

The Theatre Challenge 2022 reaches the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds.

By Rachel Sloane


A real jewel in the crown of Suffolk’s many wonderful theatres is the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, the third oldest in the country. The National Trust has it on a 999 year lease but it is run as an independent working theatre. Built in 1819 by William Wilkins when it had productions a couple of times a year, it fell into disuse.  Greene King, the local brewer, bought it in 1920 and used it as a barrel store for some years before handing it over to the National Trust on a 999 year lease. In 1960s it was reopened as a theatre, by a group of enthusiastic local people, who installed rejected cinema seats! 

In 2005 a £5.3 million project “Restoring the Repertoire” was supported by many famous names in the theatre world, and now the theatre is back to its original Regency layout and décor. 

Seating 349, the theatre has a modern bar and facilities but, as a member of the audience you walk to your seats around the curved corridor with doors that open into the back of the wooden boxes, or via the steps from the bar, into the pit. The boxes with their folding seats, the galleries above, and bench seats below in the pit, are in an intimate horseshoe shape facing the stage, which has wooden doors at each wing.

I always feel a sense of excitement when I go the Theatre Royal and, although it is 35 miles from my home, it’s one of the theatres that I go to the most in a year. 

“The theatre itself is a unique historic experience, with many of the original Regency aspects of its design closely adhered to and preserved, it is a wonder to behold, in its own right. Join us for a behind-the-scenes tour of the building to discover more about the fascinating history and you’ll even have a chance to tread the boards yourself,”  their website proudly boasts.

The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, produces three in-house productions (including a pantomime) each year and has a full programme of visiting shows of all types. I’ve seen improvisation, discussions, murder mysteries, musicals, dance, children’s shows, comedies and yes, Regency style plays too.  They organise a summer theatre school of a high standard for children and teenagers and are very involved with local schools and community projects. 

What is it like to work there? 

“How many people can say their place of work is a beautiful 200 year old building which welcomes over 80,000 people through its doors every year? “smiled Julie Cole, Head of Marketing & Sales.“Almost every day in December, the corridors are filled with the excited cries of “he’s behind you”.  A short walk from your desk to the kitchen to make a cuppa is just as likely to find you met with the set of the latest mesmerising drama as it is to find two fellas coaxing a grand piano into position. In short – every day is different and it’s exciting.”

For more details about the theatre and its current programme: www.theatreroyal.org

I’ve promised to see their next in-house production, but my Theatre Tour Challenge brings me to Bury St Edmunds to see “Same Time Next Year”: 

Same Time, Next Year

SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR by Bernard Slade.

The play, set initially in 1951, opens in an American hotel room where George, a successful accountant (played by Kieran Buckeridge) and Doris, (Sarah Kempton) a ‘modest’ housewife, have obviously just enjoyed sex, are now feeling embarrassed and guilty as both are happily married. He is on a business trip while she was heading for her annual retreat at a Catholic convent. The tryst is then repeated annually, in the same hotel room, as they get away from their families on the same pretext each year. 

On a national tour, this is a very funny play by two accomplished and experienced actors who have a huge task holding our interest without other supporting roles, but who carry it off superbly. 

A small notice of welcome that they hang in the bedroom informs us that we join them again at the 10th year, 14th, 19th and 24th anniversary, when George has worked out, they have had sex 113 times in 25 years! 

We learn of their lives in the intervening months and years when they tell each other the ‘best and the worst story’ they can about their husband or wife. Doris is the one who changes the most over the years going from a mousy and timid woman, to completing her education, before running profitable businesses. George’s career is less successful, and he eventually shares some personal tragedy with the woman who is his true love. 

With some poignant moments that catch your emotions, the play is also laugh-out-loud, especially when Doris turns round and unexpectedly reveals to George she is very pregnant… and then goes into labour!

The hotel room never changes, and the actors never look physically a day older, but the passing of the years is portrayed with changing fashions, Doris’s wigs and the changes in Doris and George’s attitudes and personalities. 

My conclusion: Highly recommended… it was a very ‘satisfying’ play that draws you into George and Doris’s lives … and makes you laugh.

‘Same Time, Next Year’ is on at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds until 19th February before continuing its tour.