27 November 2022

Rachel’s Theatre Tour is in Ipswich – at the Corn Exchange

By Rachel Sloane
The entrance to the Corn Exchange, Ipswich

The Corn Exchange is in Ipswich town centre, on the Cornhill, in the building that also houses the Town Hall. The Cornhill is the place where big outdoor civic events take place. The name Corn Exchange obviously portrays the original function of the building, and it was built on the site used as a marketplace from at least the 14th century.  

The Town Hall steps are at the front of the building and the entrance to the Corn Exchange, used now for touring shows, exhibitions, events etc, is at the rear.

Ipswich Borough Council own and run the venue and the Corn Exchange website says, 

“The Corn Exchange, built at a cost of £33,000 and opened in March 1812, had a forbidding appearance. …the interior was open to the sky and merchants and others were sheltered from the rain merely round the sides of the buildings. In July 1849 a number of merchants asked the Council to heighten its walls, add glass to the roof, convert the iron gratings to windows and clear away the corner shops. A scheme costing about £1,100 was eventually agreed, which involved a virtual rebuild since the walls were taken down to ground level.”

The council decided to solve the problem of overcrowding on market days and create a public hall by buying the land at the rear on King Street and holding a design competition, 

“…There was widespread agreement in favour of the design (one of 15) entered by Brightwen Binyon under the nom-de-plume ‘North Light’.” The new building opened in 1882.

(Binyon designed several buildings in Ipswich and Felixstowe including the building where I live!)

I was once told that an earthquake in Essex worried the Ipswich councillors at the time so much that a metal bar was put in the roof of the Corn Exchange to add extra support. I’ve done some research and there was an earthquake in Colchester, known as the Great English earthquake, on the morning of 22 April 1884 measuring 4.6 on the Richter scale, that damaged buildings in Ipswich. True or not, when I sit at a concert I like to look up at the massive ironwork of the roof and feel reassured! 

In 1971 it was decided to remodel the Corn Exchange for shows etc.  The work cost  £800,000 and took four years. The original skylights were covered over, and a floor was also added mid-height, so the theatre is upstairs (there is a lift). A stage and theatrical lighting were installed and a rear balcony added, so it has a capacity of almost 1,000 seats. The seats are removable to allow the hall to be used for balls, exhibitions, election counts etc. There is also a cinema in the basement. 

Inside the Corn Exchange

There is easy public transport to the town centre, nearby car parks and many restaurants in the vicinity. On entering the Corn Exchange, via a foyer, there is a bar area and, upstairs, the rather grand-looking theatre/concert hall itself.

Corn Exchange website https://ipswichtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/

‘Show of Hands’…Corn Exchange, Ipswich   

Show of Hands with Miranda Sykes at Ipswich Corn Exchange

I love acoustic folk and roots music and had seen Show of Hands a couple of times previously, so knew I would enjoy the concert I had chosen to attend at the Corn Exchange.  I took with me a friend who didn’t know their music – but is now a fan! Show of Hands sing traditional folk mixed with the influences of blues, Latin and American rhythms. 

The multi-ward winning folk group’s national tour started in October so this was a very polished performance, although with the ad-libbing and teasing you might expect between long-time friends. Show of Hands are a duo comprising Steve Knightly (plays guitars, mandolin, mandocello and cuatro) and Phil Beer who sings lead vocal and plays vocals, guitars, violin, viola, mandolin and mandocello

Joining them for this tour (and at past concerts I’ve been to) was Miranda Sykes on double base and vocals. 

In the first half all three appeared individually for their own slot (“we are our own support act” explained  Steve Knightly,) with each singing four songs on the theme of ‘something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue’. For the final bluesy number, they were joined by the other two, and one then stayed on stage to perform their own set of songs. 

The format worked well and was popular with the audience as many already knew the more traditional songs (the something ‘old’). The between-songs-chat was interesting, with stories of life on tour, how they got into music, how some songs were inspired by current events (eg, Mr Beeching and his closing of rail lines in the 1960’s) or by other musicians’ songs, (something ‘borrowed’). 

It was an enjoyable warm-up for the second half when the concert really came alive as all three performed a mix of new material and familiar favourites such as ‘Galway Farmer’, and ‘Cousin Jack’. 

My favourite of the new songs was ‘The Best One Yet’ about the return of music festivals post-covid which Show of Hands recorded, with the Firebrand Band, as a single and released in July 2021.  As the YouTube video (a feel-good film of countryside, musicians, families, and sunshine) comments,

“‘The Best One Yet’ is a post-lockdown anthem that celebrates and resurrects the joy of festivals after what has been a difficult year – It’s a story of community, of resilience and of coming together – not just for Show of Hands, Track Dogs, Edgelarks and Banter – but for all music fans across the UK.” 

Show of Hands…Corn Exchange, Ipswich 25th November 2022