The Theatre Challenge 2022 arrives in Bungay – at the Fisher Theatre
There used to be, in the early 19th century, a family-owned touring theatre company, The Norfolk and Suffolk Company of Comedians’. Led by David Fisher, it would tour around an East Anglian circuit of theatres that he built, for two months each before moving on, to return very two years. He had thirteen theatres in places such as Halesworth, Woodbridge, Eye, Thetford, Beccles, Swaffham, and North Walsham. (full list below)
The Fisher Theatre in Bungay is the last one remaining. It opened in 1828, but has been a Corn Hall, meeting room, cinema, laundry and warehouse since Mr Fisher and his family performed there.
According to the theatre website:
“If you go down the spiral staircase to the atmospheric cellar you can get a sense of how the late Georgian population of Bungay was stylishly entertained. You will find a reconstruction of the pit seating area complete with ‘audience’, and many historic items found during a ‘Bungay Time Team’ dig in 2004. Even cheaper than squeezing onto the pit benches, were bench seats high up in the gallery at the Broad Street endof the building. The most spacious seats were provided for the gentry, in two tiers of private boxes. While local townsfolk queued eagerly down the side of the building, ready to squash into the pit or the gallery, the gentry would enter through the big front doors, personally welcomed by David Fisher.”
In 1995 the Bungay Arts and Theatre Society (BATS) was formed in 1995 by five local people who after fundraising and applying for grants bought the theatre for the town. Enrolling a team of hard-working volunteers, in 2006, The Fisher Theatre opened again. It is a registered not-for-profit charity receiving no on-going revenue funding.
On my visit I entered the refurbished foyer with a smart new box office and a small history display. Of course, we had a drink in the interval in the friendly bar, furnished with comfortable and homely sofas. A lift reaches the upper level of the auditorium where there are two boxes, one of which was where my sister and were seated – with a great view of the stage and the audience below.
What type of shows does it put on?
“Hopefully something for everyone!” said Sandra Cox, a Fisher Theatre Trustee. “We’re constantly taking soundings of what people want. That’s what we’re here for… to provide people with what they want, at reasonable prices and of high quality.”
“It took us time to build up audiences as, in some cases, people thought that the word ‘Theatre’ meant ‘upmarket snobs’, but we’re well past that now. The Panto helped with that, as once people come once, they come back. Our charitable articles say our aims are: “To provide or assist in the provision of facilities for the recreational, educational, cultural, artistic or other leisure occupations in the interests of the social welfare of the inhabitants of the town of Bungay and surrounding communities,’ and I think we’ve cracked that. Our major aim now in our Business Plan is to become one of the best arts and theatre centres in its class in the country.”
Blithe Spirt by Noel Coward – The Harleston Players
I was SO looking forward to seeing this production as I played Elvira, the ghost, over 50 years ago in the Framlingham Amateur Dramatic Society… and the Harleston Players did not disappoint!
This was a very professional production performed with great confidence, slick staging and excellent costumes and set. It was an evening to relax, laugh and enjoy the show. (My sister, who accompanied me and hadn’t seen the play before, said she forgot it was an amateur group she was watching.)
Prior to Blithe Spirit starting I couldn’t have quoted one line of the script, but the brain is a strange thing and, a second before each line was uttered, I knew what was coming…. And it still didn’t spoil the plot for me!
Edith, the wobbling and over-enthusiastic maid (played by Josie Fuller, and inspired by Julie Waters, I suspect) made us laugh when, after admonishment, she went for very deliberate slow-paced walking, as she exited holding a very large tray. Her employers Ruth and Charles Condomine (Meryl Keeble and Steve Barrett) have invited their friends Dr and Mrs Bradman (Barry Givens and Mary Frendo) to come for dinner and to attend a séance, led by Madame Arcati (Cherryl Jeffries, played with just the right amount of eccentricity). None of them are believers in such things but are helping Charles research his latest book.
With lots of ‘is there anyone there… and knock once for yes and twice for no’… Madam Arcati’s séance manages to bring back the ghostly figure of Charles’s first wife, Elvira, whom only he can see. As may be expected, things begin to get very complicated, especially after her plot to reunite with Charles in the afterlife, backfires when the resulting car crash kills Ruth… and Charles has two ghostly wives to contend with.
All of the cast were excellent but special mention must be made of Meryl Keeble – I had forgotten what an enormous part Ruth had, here ably supported by her stage husband, Steve Barrett. The characters that everyone rightly remembers are Elvira and Madam Arcati, of course!
Both ghosts are returned ‘home’ by a further séance, but express their invisible anger with crashing ornaments and spinning paintings, and I was left puzzled about how we did that with the FADS production that was performed ‘in the round’!
Congratulations to the Harleston Players for a great night out, and providing a reason for me to explore another of Suffolk’s lovely local theatres, The Fisher Theatre, Bungay
Some Fascinating Facts from Sandra:
It’s thought that Bungay might have been one of the first towns to have a one-way system for traffic because the road was so narrow outside the theatre that carriages couldn’t pass each other.
· David Fisher had a marvellous business plan. After he’d built the first couple he went to the next town and met with all the rich people and said ‘Look at …… there doing so well, they have a theatre and it makes them look so much better than you and then they would front up with the money, pay to have the building built and David didn’t have to pay anything.
· It was amazing when we first opened how many people came and said that they had got engaged in the back row of the auditorium when it was a cinema.
· The flag stones in the foyer are the original ones we found under coverings when we pulled them up.
· The original ‘Header’ to the stage curtains (renovated in a glass box at the back of the auditorium) is thought again to be a one-off, priceless and can’t be insured as it can’t be valued against another one because no other exists. We found it in the cellar rolled up and were about to throw it in a skip when some officials turned up to view what we were doing. We pulled it out to cover up some rubbish. Afterwards someone looked on the other side and saw it was painted.
THE 13 FISHER THEATRES ROUGHLY FROM NORTH TO SOUTH