An exiled French emperor and the young Charles Dickens could have been among its early audiences. Not long ago it staged a play about the novelist's mistreatment of his wife that anticipated the current film "The Invisible Woman". Just recently the same company (Out of Joint) played "This May Hurt a Bit," a satire on government mistreatment of the NHS. And its own history has been no less problematic.
Our only functioning Regency theatre could have been demolished but for the generosity of its owner, the brewery Greene King, and a campaign headed by locally-born Peter Hall. Visiting the Theatre Royal now is to find mementoes of its past in production posters, photographs of stars who once performed there and in the Greene Room cafe/bar finds from the archaeological dig that preceded its restoration.
Archaeologists were called in because the theatre lies close to the former boundary wall of Bury and only a few steps from the historic town centre. The theatre itself is now a living archaeological reconstruction, having been (perhaps questionably) given what the National Trust considered to be a Georgian-style auditorium. How the gouty men of those days made their way – if they ever thought to do so – into the circle boxes or on to the pit benches is difficult to imagine. Even with modern mobility aids some people have found it difficult.
That apart, the appearance of the auditorium is a delight. Above the proscenium arch a painted frieze of classical deities tempts the eye into thoughts of carved marble. The ceiling is all cumulus clouds. The distance from stage to rear seats and even to the balcony – aptly the gods here – presents no problem in audibility. This last is used with spectacular effect in landing a man-gorilla on stage by wire during one of the "Behind the Scenes" tours that are a feature of the summer months, when rehearsals allow.
Since performances in provincial theatres are by definition transient it is enough to say that companies with national reputations such as Out of Joint, English Touring Theatre, Northern Broadsides and Propeller make appearances, as do dance companies, small-scale opera companies and well-known musicians for the concert series. The annual Bury St Edmunds Festival brings artists of renown in all spheres. What more encouragement should lovers of the arts need?
The one constant performance, however, is the tour. This is free to National Trust members and at minimal cost to others. It takes visitors on a dramatised journey through all parts of the theatre and throughout its history, from presenting Regency tear-jerkers like "Black Eyed Susan," revived in the restoration repertoire, to music hall, decline into warehouse for the brewery across the road and the campaigns, first to keep it standing then to restore it. Visitors take part in brief musical extracts on stage as well as touring backstage and below the stage. The entire event is enacted by theatre staff and, in the best music hall tradition, "chiefly yourselves".
Bury has a wealth of delights to offer visitors, whether for a single day, a weekend or longer. The Theatre Royal is by no means upstaged by any of them.