25 years of Eastern Angles

RACHEL BULLER From tiny village halls and schools to fire stations and historic barns, for quarter of a century Eastern Angles has been performing theatre productions in the most unlikely of places across the region. As it celebrates its 25th birthday, RACHEL BULLER spoke to Ivan Cutting, artistic director, about the past, present and future of the touring theatre company.


When five actors started Eastern Angles 25 years ago, their aim was simple - to take the theatre out to the audience.

With productions which were predominantly based on local themes, they set out to perform in all corners of the region where even a lack of traditional venues could not get in their way.

Since its first show - Marsh Fever, back in 1982, the company has put on dozens of productions, from the well known to the relatively obscure, erecting a stage in all manner of places across Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

Village halls, arts venues, historical sites and even a garden centre have all been transformed into temporary theatres to host Eastern Angles productions.

The company is now based at the Sir John Mills Theatre in Ipswich, but the emphasis remains the same.

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They have just finished touring with Truckstop, a play written by a Dutch author set in Holland, which “could easily be set just outside of King's Lynn”. It is now being performed in Edinburgh at the festival.

Ivan Cutting was one of the original five actors who set up Eastern Angles and is now artistic director.

“When we started I didn't think we expected it to last this long, we certainly didn't have a big plan, it was just getting from one show to another.

“Now things have developed so much for us and the reach is far, far greater than we thought. Having Truckstop in Edinburgh at the moment is just amazing and we never dreamt it possible at the start.

“It could easily be set just outside of King's Lynn rather than Holland, but the fact that it could have been set here was enough for us not to change it, it transcends the culture,” he explained.

But while the variety of work and geographical boundaries may have changed, he insists the original ethos of Eastern Angles remains the same.

“It remains fundamentally about the people - the audience. The actual delivery of theatre at a village hall is still exactly the same as it was 25 years ago.

“There are still lots of speakers and lights which still weigh exactly the same when you are lugging them up stairs or dragging them from a van into a village hall. Nothing has changed there. And people have still got to turn up and watch, just like they did when we first started,” he said.

“That is what keeps us different from film and television, where the increasing technology means they are under increasing pressure to get bigger and better, whereas for us, there is something to be said for the simplicity of a gang of people turning up and playing a show live, that is what an audience turns up for, that unique experience.”

Ivan said that he still saw most of the original members and that Pat Whymark was still very much involved.

Currently they have a permanent staff of seven and use different acting companies with each show, although he said they had several returnees who performed in many of the different productions.

Mr Cutting said that stricter health-and-safety regulations had changed some aspects of how they worked, but that it hadn't stifled their choice of venue.

“We've played some amazing places, but for me it is always best when we turn places that are not a theatre into a theatre. We are capable of popping up anywhere. And now we have a new seating system we bring with us which is great.

“We once did a show that toured fire stations and during some of the performances the bells would go and half the audience would leave - sometimes they would make it back for the end. It was just great doing a play about the fire service in a real fire station.

“At the moment we are playing a lot of tithe barns which are always brilliant, and in fact often the older venues are the best. We have played high ceilings and low ceilings and we have literally had to saw the top six inches of a set before to get it in.

“Often we've had kitchens as changing rooms with actors mid-costume change just as they are serving half-time teas,” Mr Cutting laughed.

He said that the company's permanent move into the Sir John Mills Theatre in Ipswich was great as it gave them somewhere to practise and prepare and also enabled them to put on their annual run of Christmas shows there which have been going for about 20 years.

However he said it was odd having an actual theatre-based home as the ethos of the company was to get out and about.

“What people have to know is that when we get lottery money or Arts Council money, it is not just for Ipswich. It is funding a facility for whichever community we are in at any one point.”

At the moment the company plan several new shows, including The Cuckoo Teapot” about the labourers from Norfolk who travelled up to Burton-on-Trent to work in the breweries and would return home with teapots for their mothers; and a play exploring the link between GM crop research at the John Innes Centre and food shortages in Africa.

For more information, see www.easternangles.co.uk