2 October 2023

A Theatre Challenge review.

By Rachel Sloane

In January 2022 I wrote a feature in Suffolk Norfolk Life committing to visit all of Suffolk’s theatres in twelve months, reporting on the theatre building and reviewing as many styles of productions as possible. 

The result?

By 31st December 2022, I had been to: 

26 Suffolk theatres – 14 with friends (8 different ones) but 12 of them I went to alone (I will come back to that). Some kindly gave me review tickets, while the rest I bought online.

Out of the 26, 14 were professional productions and the rest were put on by some of our wonderful amateur groups.

I drove several hundred miles in total (sorry, planet!)

I saw musicians, dancers, singers, actors, comics… and a magician. 

So why did I do it and what did I learn? 

In October 2021 the theatres were reopening after Covid but audiences were reluctant to risk a night out in a crowd, so it was a difficult time for theatres and those who work in them. I am a theatre lover and go to three or four of my local theatres fairly regularly. I was ready to return. Could I persuade others to join me somehow? 

Back in 1998, I had visited every theatre in Suffolk over 12 months, reporting on its history, enjoying a different type of production, and making features about each one for BBC Radio Suffolk where I was a presenter at the time.  Some no longer exist – for example, the lovely little Eye Theatre where it was like sitting in some-one’s front room, nor the Unicorn Theatre, tucked behind an Ipswich pub of the same name. 

There are luckily some new ones too, for example, The Cut at Halesworth and The Avenue Theatre in Ipswich. I decided to repeat the exercise, reporting on my challenge via my website and on social media. Then Georgy Jamieson, the presenter of the Monday nights arts and entertainment show on BBC Suffolk and BBC Norfolk, invited me to report on my progress, every few weeks, on her programme. 

The first show I booked was We Will Rock You, a national tour, coming to The Regent Theatre in Ipswich. It was postponed – a victim of Covid! I eventually saw it at the rescheduled date in May and very good it was too…  but the cancellation was not a great start to my challenge!

In the early weeks of 2022 some theatres were half empty. I remember the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds in February where my sister and I were able to move to rows of empty seats rather than stay in our booked seats. (We were nervous about Covid too and took sensible precautions, wearing masks and having interval drinks delivered to our seats, when we could).  

Gradually theatres started to fill again, and always there was such a feeling of excitement in the audience, and such emotional gratitude from the cast and theatre staff.  Many hadn’t worked for months. By the end of the year most theatres putting on big tours and professional productions were just about full, as were most of the amateur shows. 

What did I learn? 

First, it is absolutely fine to go to the theatre on your own. Yes, it’s nice to share the journey and have someone to chat to about what you have seen but going alone is OK too. If you are alone, often the person sitting in the seat next to you starts chatting. Otherwise, just read your programme and eat an ice-cream in the interval. Usually, I went alone because it was a fairly last-minute booking, but sometimes it was because I wasn’t sure if my unusual choices would appeal. After all, if my friend hated the show, I couldn’t leave early, as I was reviewing the production and needed to stay to the very end. 

We went through several months when few productions had printed programmes. Either, with uncertain audience numbers, they were saving money … or they said wanted to save the planet! Some expected you to look on their websites or social media to learn the names of the actors. (Very frustrating for a reviewer).  Most have now got printed programmes again. 

Buying tickets is very easy now, as even the most small-scale am-dram group allows you to choose your seat, book and pay online.

There are some very good professional small-scale theatre productions that tour around the smaller venues. I did go to a couple that involved a long drive and then found they were coming to Felixstowe, where I live, within a week or so. My advice is to check all the tour dates online, before you book for a far-flung venue.

What I discovered was that there are a lot of small ‘studio’ style theatres, seating maybe a hundred or so at most, that are run very professionally by teams of volunteers. Often located in old Victorian schools or churches, some have been taken over by established amateur dramatic societies who have longed for their own home, or by local people horrified at the thought that council cut-backs mean their beloved theatre was going to close, so form a not-for-profit group to save it. Most are a ’receiving theatre’ to use the technical term, welcoming professional tours, as well as hosting amateur productions. The buildings have been improved, have great facilities both onstage and for audiences, offer a really friendly welcome, and deserve our support.

What were some of my highlights? It might have been a long drive to Lowestoft and Pakefield from my home in Felixstowe, but the standard of the two amateur productions I saw there were very good… (In one, a couple of the cast were ex-entertainers from holiday centres, now with post-Covid new jobs, but still loving to appear on stage.) 

The new outdoor theatre at Thorington Forest was a wonderful setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a very hot summer’s day, and it was doubly special as I went with a friend who had never seen Shakespeare performed live before and absolutely loved it. 

I will also never forget seeing the comedy folk singer Richard Digence on the day the Queen died.  We listened to the BBC announcement in the carpark before we went into The Apex in Bury St Edmunds, not knowing if the show would go ahead. It did…and Richard handled a difficult situation brilliantly, as I relate in my review. 

The county’s larger venues put on some really good plays and national tours, and are a much cheaper alternative to going to a London show. Theatres recovered from Covid, (often thanks to grants) only now to face higher costs and audience members watching their budgets.  

Next year? Well, there are two theatres in Suffolk that I thought were summer-only theatre venues but discovered, too late, are running as ‘receiving’ theatres year-round. So sorry, Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh and Southwold Arts Centre, both of which I have been to many times for Summer Theatres. I promise I will come in 2023. 

The main thing I will do now is to continue going to the theatre but will remember that we have wonderful theatres and concert halls across Suffolk, so I won’t return only to my nearest ones but will look further afield – and will also book some of less obvious types of performances too. That has really been fun. (Stand-up comedy was an experience!)

Go on. Try something new. Book a ticket and head to a theatre… and not just the one down the road!


You can read the reports on all the theatres and the productions I saw on www.rachelsloane.co.uk

Here is the list: 


January: Gallery Studio, Ipswich

February: Spa Pavilion, Felixstowe/ Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

March: New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich 

April: The Quay at Sudbury/ Fisher Theatre, Bungay

May: Regent Theatre, Ipswich 

June: Marina Theatre, Lowestoft/ Riverside, Woodbridge

July: Thorington Theatre/Two Sisters Arts Centre, Trimley

August: Snape Maltings/John Peel Centre, Stowmarket/Seagull Theatre, Pakefield

September: Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich/The Apex, Bury St Edmunds

October: Players Theatre, Lowestoft/ The Avenue Theatre, Ipswich/Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge/Beccles Public Hall 

November: Haverhill Arts Centre/Corn Exchange, Ipswich/The Cut, Halesworth

December: Kings Theatre, Newmarket/DanceEast, Ipswich/The Regal, Stowmarket

2023…. Southwold… Aldeburgh… and Norfolk?

(This article was first published in Suffolk Norfolk Life magazine in February 2023)