Sheringham Little Theatre has stood proud in the town centre of the traditional seaside town for 54 years. SOPHIE WYLLIE went to meet theatre director Debbie Thompson, 49, who counts herself lucky to still be working in the notoriously tough industry

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She first set foot into Sheringham Little Theatre aged 12 when a touring company performed Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

And 37 years later she is at the heart of the 180-seat venue, built in 1897 originally as a town hall.

“I was carried away by it. It was really significant and I can remember the intimacy and the atmosphere,” Mrs Thompson said.

The theatre is one of the few remaining in the country that hosts the traditional summer rep season for professional actors.

In just two weeks performers fresh out of drama schools and seasoned professionals learn about six plays ready for holidaymakers and theatre regulars.

Summer rep is highly regarded and seen as a good training ground for actors.

The theatre also puts on a professional inhouse pantomime every Christmas which attracts hordes of children, parents and even film stars.

Dr Who star John Hurt was the voice of the magic mirror in the recent Snow White production.

The venue also puts on outreach classes for young people, shows films and East Anglian-based plays.

An “army” of 86 volunteers are “vital” to the success of the theatre, which has a community bar called The Hub.

Mrs Thompson, from North Walsham Road, Knapton, said: “I would like to increase the work we do with young people. I like the idea of a young persons’ rep so we are training young people to become more self-sustaining. The theatre is the lifeblood of the community.”

She added: “The theatre brings a lot of visitors to the town. People book their holidays around the summer rep and panto seasons. Hopefully, economically, we are benefiting the town.

“It is something the town is very proud of. We are very lucky to have it in the heart of Sheringham. I hope to always be involved in the performing arts.”

The theatre has not only been a place where Mrs Thompson can work in the arts – it is where she met her husband and where her children have performed.

She was born in Shropshire but moved to Mundesley aged four with her two brothers. Her family moved to Honing a year later.

Mrs Thompson’s sailor father Robin Barnes grew up in Overstrand and her mother Liz Barnes continues to be a rose grower at Wroxham Barns.

She got her performing side from her mother’s side.

Her second cousin Nicky Henson has acted in EastEnders and Downton Abbey as well as being a director for a Sheringham Summer Rep play. His father Leslie performed at Sheringham Prom in the 1940s.

Mrs Thompson, who admitted to being a show off, put on plays while at Honing Primary School and was involved with the Mundesley Players and Stalham Players.

At 16 she played Sally Bowles in the musical Cabaret while with the Stalham Players.

After leaving the former North Walsham High School for Girls she studied drama A-level at Norwich City College.

She completed a drama degree at Loughborough University before going to Drama Studio London, Ealing, for a year in 1988.

The theatre director said: “My mum insisted I had a degree. She wanted me to have a security blanket.”

One of her earliest jobs was doing Sheringham Summer Rep in 1992 when she played a naughty maid in The School for Wives.

She said: “It was lovely because I could come home.”

The following summer she returned and performed alongside her future husband Simon Thompson, who trained at East 15 Acting School, in Trap for a Lonely Man.

“I did love him but I didn’t think he would love me. We were very good friends. It was at the end of the 12-week season when he asked me out,” Mrs Thompson added.

They married on June 3, 1995, at Honing church and lived in London for eight years while performing on stage and television.

The couple moved to Norfolk after their daughter Katie, 16, and son Sam, 14, were born.

Their children have picked up the performing genes – Katie is a soprano singer and Sam is a

comic and enjoys drumming and both are heavily involved in theatre life.

“We do encourage them but at the same time we make them aware of how difficult a profession the performing arts is.”

Mrs Thompson completed a teaching degree at Greenwich University and started at the little theatre as a youth outreach worker followed by artistic development manager in 2002.

Her 48-year-old husband trained as a teacher at Sheringham High School and has been a performing arts and drama tutor at Paston Sixth Form College for the past decade. He started directing productions at the theatre in 2006.

“I feel privileged I can work at a theatre but go home to my husband and children. I am lucky because it is a job my family can be involved in. It gives us things to discuss and it is a genuine hobby,” she said.

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