19 December 2022

My theatre tour is in Stowmarket- at the Regal

By Rachel Sloane
The Regal Theatre Stowmarket, with new extension

In the centre of town with a large public carpark next door, The Regal at Stowmarket has an impressive new café, upgraded foyer and toilets. 

The Regal was opened in 1936 as a 566-seat cinema and has a long history. As the website says it was built… 

“…on the former Dukes Head Meadow which had previously been used for travelling fairs and circuses. Coincidentally, the meadow had also been used for mobile silent movie screenings in large tents during the early Edwardian period. Therefore, it is safe to say, that the site of the Regal has over a century of film history!”

A popular cinema until 1970’s it was nearly sold to be a carpet warehouse, but apparently was saved by Stowmarket council with two hours to spare! 

It was refurbished in 1974 and then, in 1976, a larger stage and dressing rooms helped make this a venue for live shows as well as films. 

 In 2007, the venue received a refurbishment, including new seats, new curtains and a new colour scheme and in April 2008, the theatre enjoyed its highest admissions and best financial result for a generation. However, on the evening of 16th September 2009 disaster struck. At around 10pm, a fire quickly spread through the building. Due to the vigilance of neighbours and the professionalism and bravery of the fire service, the building was saved, but it had sustained serious damage.”

The Regal Theatre re-opened on 3rd March 2010 and, in 2016, , enjoyed the busiest August on record, with over 7000 admissions and was putting on a range of shows including opera and pantomime. In 2020 the theatre closed for 15 months and has now reopened with better backstage facilities; two additional screens and a new café-bar called the ‘1936’. It was paid for by Mid Suffolk District Council and Stowmarket Town Council.

Mainly the Regal is used as a cinema but I wanted to include it in this series as I knew the plans for the new Regal are to host  more live music and drama performances as well as conferences, community events and meetings. In addition I had visited the theatre to see the SODS  (Stowmarket Operatic and Dramatic Society) when I made the original Theatre Tour series for BBC Radio Suffolk in 1988. It was time to return.

The auditorium

The live shows must be very popular as the two big autumn/winter tours coming to town were both sold-out long before I looked to book. But I found a seasonal show to go to….. 

Neil Sands Christmas Memories 2022

“We are very proud of the fact that over the past 17 years, we have become known as ‘the Masters of Matinee Nostalgia’.”

A popular show of seasonal songs, aimed squarely at an older audience, this performance was the 33rd of a tour of 34 shows. Neil Sands from Ipswich moved on from his career as a wrestler to a 25-year career as a cabaret artist, comedian and singer.

With over 60 Christmas songs and more stunning costume changes than I could count, Neil and his two young female vocalists ( Babette Smith and Sophie Pinsent) were accompanied by keyboard player Jim Edmunds and drummer Phil Segon. 

Neil Sands and his performers

Babette and Sophie have lovely voices, looked stunning and were seemingly as fresh as the first concert of the tour, but I think Neil, changing into a series of glittery and festive jackets, who sings and provides the banter linking the songs, appeared a little tired and I suspect ready for the final show! (Perhaps he was unwell and battling through?)

Held in the afternoon (presumably to attract older audiences) the songs sung were by the likes of Harry Belafonte , Johnny Matthis, Tommy Steele, Elvis etc. Discussing the show in the interval with my friendly neighbours, everyone praised the costumes and singing, but made the point that they were very old songs. After all, someone who was a teenager in the 1960’s was aged in their 70’s and 80’s now so perhaps a few more ‘modern’ songs needed to be added to the programme! (When encouraged to ‘sing along’, a good number in the audience weren’t sure of the words of the old songs, apart from the chorus, maybe.) 

My favourite numbers were by Babette and Sophie, who sung Walking in the Air and O Holy Night. (It will take me some time to recover from Neil’s appearance dressed as Elvis! Very funny.) 

The second half of the show was a ‘Victorian Christmas Carol Concert’ which gave everyone a chance to join in singing some well-known carols… and The Twelve Days of Christmas , with actions. The audience left the theatre, happy and in a festive spirit.

The show sounded and looked good but, as Neil Sands audiences become the age he is aiming at, he will need to add more songs from the 1970’s and 80’s, I think.  Many years ago, my elder son, then aged 8, commented that ‘old’ people soon wouldn’t sit around the piano singing war songs but those of The Beatles!

Neil Sands Christmas Memories 2022 at The Regal Theatre, Stowmarket, Friday 16th December 2022