10 March 2022

Rachel’s Theatre Challenge 2022 reaches the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

By Rachel Sloane
The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich


Built in 1979, this is a modern 400 seater theatre with excellent viewpoints, wherever you sit. It both ‘receives’ plays that are touring, does a lot of co-productions with other theatres and produces its own work. In recent years it has very successfully become known for the quality of its plays and Rock and Roll pantomimes, using actor-musicians. The theatre has won awards for its work with diversity and for disability involvement and access.

Located near the town centre with excellent nearby parking, in the last couple of years it has developed a ‘theatre square’ with an outdoor performing space, and a ‘community arts pavilion’ for rehearsal space and youth projects. 

The foyer, café and bar have been completely refurbished as well. 

The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich is the one I know best in Suffolk. I was in the audience in 1999 when, at the end of the production, there was an unexpected announcement that The Wolsey Theatre (as it was then) was to close. When it reopened as the New Wolsey Theatre in 2001, I interviewed Sarah Holmes, the incoming Chief Executive, sitting in the empty auditorium. Twenty-one years later she, along with Peter Rowe, the Artistic Director, have announced they are leaving, so it really is the end of an era. The new Chief Executive, Douglas Rintoul, takes up the role at the end of May, but I was able to talk to him ahead of my visit to The New Wolsey for this series, as he is the director of ‘All My Sons’, the latest play I was to see on my Theatre Tour Challenge. 

This is what he had to say about his career and new job: 

“I have a long history with the Wolsey Theatre and it feels like a second home. I grew up in Colchester, in a family without a theatre background. I had a very good drama teacher and did a GCSE in drama, falling in love with the theatre. I was addicted to the Mercury Theatre in Colchester, but also came to see productions at the Wolsey. This was in the late 1980’s.

Following my theatre degree, I got into directing and was accepted onto the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme and had a two-year placement at Salisbury Theatre. I met and chatted with Peter Rowe, and he gave me my chance to direct ‘Private Lives’ by Noel Coward. That got me switched on to the brilliance of the older plays, that still speak to us today. 

In 2015 I was working at the Queens Theatre, Hornchurch and we did co-productions with Peter, which we’d never done before there, including ‘Made in Dagenham’. It enabled us to put on plays at Hornchurch that couldn’t have happened without pairing with another theatre. 

The New Wolsey is very special. The auditorium is quite small, and uniform and the audience wraps around the thrust stage, so it feels very immediate and strong. A work can feel quite explosive. It’s a unique auditorium where the actors are so connected to the audience.   

The New Wolsey has energy and is a welcoming community hub. As a child who grew up on a council estate, I know a theatre has to be appealing to a wide spectrum of people. An accessible theatre that feels like home is a vital part of widening audiences.”

And tonight’s play? 

“All My Sons in this theatre brings the play right to the audience. You are in the garden and sharing the characters: lives, almost in real time, there is no divide between actors and audience in this space. It’s special and immediate.

It is just the most brilliant play. Probably one of the best. After 75 years it still speaks to us now, with issues that resonate: it questions our collective responsibility.

At the beginning we meet an ordinary family who we completely fall in love. They are charismatic, playful, warm and they grab our hearts. But as the play goes on, terrifying truths are revealed behind the façade, it becomes an emotional rollercoaster of a journey and is a powerful experience…”

Douglas then revealed that his old drama teacher from Colchester was in the audience. … so, no pressure! 


All My Sons by Arthur Miller

All My Sons by Arthur Miller.

As someone said to us as we took our seats… ‘it’s Arthur Miller so it’s not going to end well’!

Set in an attractive post-war garden of an American house, complete with veranda, a broken tree lies across the front of the garden. This a community where neighbours pop in and out and the local children are encouraged to ‘patrol’ the streets by Joe, (played by David Hounslow) the father of the family who lives here, who they believe was once a detective. 

Living next door to Joe and his wife Kate (Eve Matheson) are clumsy but good- hearted Frank (Graeme Rooney) and his wife Lydia (Tilly-Mae Millbrook, who also convincingly plays Frank the over-excited very keen child patroller who can’t bear to repeat the naughty word she heard another child say). On the other side of the hedge live Dr Jim (David Bonnick Jr) who is constantly being harangued by his ex-nurse wife, Sue (Natasha Lewis). 

Joe and Kate have a son, Larry, who has been ‘missing in action’ for over three years but Kate refuses to believe he is dead, siting the news stories of unexpectedly returning veterans. His room and clothes are untouched and his brother Chris (Oliver Hembrough), who works in Joe’s manufacturing business, desperately wants his mother to accept the inevitable, especially as he has fallen in love with his missing brother’s girlfriend, the glamorous Ann (Kibong Tanji), and they have been writing to each other. 

Ann and her family used to live next door, and Chris decides to bring matters to a head and invites Ann to stay. Gradually we discover that Ann’s estranged father is in prison for a crime that led to American airmen dying, and that the neighbourhood still believes that Joe was also responsible for.

When Ann’s brother George  (Nathan Ives-Moiba) arrives, matters come to a head and Joe and Kate are forced to confront the reality of what Joe did. And what really happened to Larry.

The anger of Joe when cornered by memories and guilt, and the anguish of Ann when everyone else is urging her to ‘forget’ Larry, was riveting and I could see many audience members leaning forward in their seats as they were swept into the drama unfolding on the stage.

Larry’s fallen and broken memorial tree in the first half of the play…and its removal in the second… was a powerful symbol of the conflict we were watching unfold. 

This is a play with characters who grab all your attention. As we left the New Wolsey Theatre, we said that the actors, all excellent, must be emotionally drained…. As we were too! 

My accompanying friend, returning to the theatre post-covid for the first time, said this was a good play for her to be reminded of how wonderful the experience of live theatre is.  

(I bet director Douglas Rintoul’s old drama teacher, who was in the audience, was very proud!) 

All My Sons is on 8th- 12th March 2022 https://www.wolseytheatre.co.uk