Eastern Angles touring drama for 30 years

Touring theatre legend Ivan Cutting is marking the 30th anniversary of Eastern Angles with a special production that arrives in Norfolk next week. ANDREW CLARKE met him to talk about keeping faith with the group's original manifesto.

Ivan Cutting is a happy man. He is just putting the finishing touches to a major anniversary celebration.

Two major productions, drawn from regional history and folklore, will form the centrepiece for celebrations which will mark the 30th birthday of Eastern Angles, the regional touring theatre company.

Ivan will be staging a brand new production of the much-loved play Margaret Catchpole in the Hush House at RAF Bentwaters in June, and is currently overseeing an extensive tour of his new play Private Resistance, which has its first Norfolk staging at the Sheringham Little Theatre next week.

'Some people may say that we haven't progressed but I would argue that we have. We have evolved – we have expanded and developed what we do – but we still deliver what it says on the tin.

'Some companies come unstuck when they say: 'We're doing such and such, but we really want to be doing this in five years time.' We have never been like that. We nailed our colours to the mast fairly early on. We said: 'This is what we are going to do'. But we have found various different ways of doing it and different ways of delivering it and that is what has kept it fresh.

'Yes, we have been given some challenges along the way but fundamentally we still stand by our manifesto that we first declared 30 years ago – which is four things.

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'One is to do good theatre, two is to promote new writing or perform original work, three is to have a regional flavour and four is to tour the region with a particular interest in non-professional venues, places like village halls and community centres.'

He added that a fifth proviso was included later, which was to achieve renown. The fact that Eastern Angles remains a beloved part of our cultural heritage is a testament to their success.

Ivan said that the feedback they receive from local communities after a tour is a heart-warming endorsement of their work. Even the late John Peel was moved to sing their praises in his column in the Radio Times during the late 1990s.

Even though Eastern Angles was created to provide a vital cultural lifeline to rural areas, no-one could guess at the extent of their loyal following when the company was first founded in 1982.

'A lot of people are uneasy when you use phrases like 'new writing'. They think it is difficult, unsettling and not for them. But we have been very successful at doing shows which are nearly always 'new writing' but people don't see them as such because they are based very much on stories which arise out of the area.

'When we first created the company we realised that there aren't many plays about this area so we have had to go out and get them written. It's approaching new writing from a different perspective. I think stories are at the heart of it. We are, after all, a storytelling theatre.'

He said that regional touring provides their bread and butter but every now and then Ivan gets the urge to make a big set-piece statement, which is usually tied into to an anniversary or a major milestone.

Ivan said East Anglia makes a strong attachment to people's hearts. This appeal was very noticeable when Ivan, then recently graduated from the University of Bristol, teamed up with a group of friends to provide the area with its first truly local touring theatre company. Based in a hut at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk, they created a company initially to give themselves work.

'I have always been interested in locality. It was about telling stories in a different way. It was about reviving the idea of theatre appearing in village halls.

'I was very aware that there were companies in other parts of the country delivering work that wasn't available round here.'

In November 1982, Cutting, Jan Farmery, David Caddick, Lawrence Werber, Pat Whymark and Kevin Peacock got together to create a theatre company under auspices of the Manpower Services Commission.

Ivan phoned up friend David Caddick about starting a rural touring theatre company. Caddick contacted fellow friend Jan Farmery, who was working with Ipswich's Wolsey Theatre. The last of the founders on board was dentist-turned actor Lawrence Werber who was swiftly joined by young musician and actress Pat Whymark to become the group's musical director.

Although Pat no longer works on every show, she was the Eastern Angles music director for most of the company's 30 years and still contributes to productions.

The first proper show the group did was Marsh Fever — the tale of East Anglia phantom dog Black Shuck – and it proved to be an immediate hit.

Ivan said that the blueprint for Eastern Angles was there from the beginning and still remains the same. The plays are either written in-house or are commissioned from local writers, which also gives the productions that authentic local feel. Marsh Fever was quickly followed by When The Boats Come In and No Song, No Supper.

Ivan maintains there is no formula to their work but they are given a lot freedom by their audiences because a strong element of trust has grown up over the years.

It's something they don't take for granted and for which there's no short-cut.

Over the years Eastern Angles have tackled a wide range of topics including tales of Americans in East Anglia in Goodbye America and Crossroad Blues, the story of the East Anglian fishing industry in When The Boats Come In, the 1953 floods in Beneath The Waves and a multi-part look at the changing nature of rural life in shows like The Reapers Year, Days of Plenty, The Bone Harvest, The Tithe War and Return To Akenfield.

Ivan has also consciously avoided some subjects because they looked rather too obvious. It took him many years to tackle such famous regional characters as Margaret Catchpole and Boudicca because they were such well-known figures.

Once he persuaded himself that Eastern Angles should tackle these historic titans, it was their personalities, rather than the iconic stories, that became his entry point.

In this 30th anniversary year he said that once again they will be tapping into the very foundations of Eastern Angles' values with two high profile productions.

The roots of Private Resistance are to be found in a series of interviews that Ivan conducted in 1984 with old farm workers, fishermen and people who lived in countryside.

These interviews have provided the foundation for a wide range of shows which have looked at various aspects of East Anglian life over the years.

'I didn't want to do pure documentaries so I started integrating fictional characters into documentary-based stories. It made a much stronger impact and suited more people's tastes.

'Private Resistance is a play which came from a set of interviews I did for On The Home Front I was talking to this chap who I thought served in The Home Guard and he said: 'No I was with this extra special group called the auxiliary unit and we dug this underground bunker and were supposed to go down there when the Germans invaded and come up and fight behind enemy lines.

'At the time it felt quite extraordinary and I have had that ringing around in my brain for the last 20 years. I have always felt that we should do something more about that and we have finally got the opportunity.'

He said that Private Resistance is a fictional story but is based on fact — on the evidence provided by those original interviews and by talking to local historians and museums that preserve much of our wartime heritage.

'As with all our plays it is about people. It tells the story of a young lad who's in the scouts, an older guy who is a gamekeeper who is going to be in the auxiliary units, a doctor's wife who is looking after her sister's son and her brother-in-law who is the guy who is going to be organising the auxiliary unit.

'It's about how the war brought together all these disparate groups of people. It's that combination of the right characters, the place and the opportunity.'

The other major event in Ivan's calendar next year is a re-staging of Margaret Catchpole which will be allowed to really take flight in the surroundings of the Bentwaters Hush House.

It's a completely new production with a new Margaret. 'It's a tale of smugglers and the hidden economy. Also it's a love story and her horse-ride to London to save her lover is comparable to any Olympic feat. It's an extraordinary achievement by anyone's standards.

'The thing about Margaret Catchpole is that it is essentially an East Anglian tale. It is about the land and it is essentially a celebration about everything that is great about this area.'

t Private Resistance is staged at Sheringham Little Theatre on March 8, �12, 01263 822347, www.sheringhamlittletheatre.com

t It will also be staged at New Buckenham Village Hall on March 14, Aylsham Town Hall on March 28, Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft, on April 2, and at the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich on April 5. www.easternangles.co.uk