Coming to a hall near you . . .
PUBLISHED: 10:19 15 September 2015 | UPDATED: 10:19 15 September 2015
Julian Harries and Pat Whymark are well known personalities in Suffolk theatre. Andrew Clarke spoke to the pair as they seek to take Suffolk-made theatre to the people rather than the other way round
During the last eight years Suffolk actor-musicians Julian Harries and Pat Whymark have been quietly building up their own theatre company Common Ground.
It’s a very inclusive company using professionals from the area as well as talented youngsters from the local community.
Julian says the company exists not only to give work to local actors but also to celebrate Suffolk’s heritage and culture. Since the company was founded they have explored Suffolk’s criminal past in Gallows Song, explored child labour in Victorian Ipswich in Harriet Walker, they celebrated Suffolk’s Dr John Hale, a pioneer of the ‘non-restraint’ method of care for those suffering from mental illness during the 19th century as well as celebrating Dickens’ connections with Suffolk in two shows Sketches with Boz and The Signalman.
Recently Pat and Julian, famous for their Eastern Angles Christmas Shows, have been penning original shows, domestic dramas like Stuff in the Attic and this year’s Stranded along with comic takes on classic stories like The Prisoner of Zenda and this autumn’s extensive tour of The Count of Monte Cristo.
Over the years Common Ground has been steadily building a reputation for taking good quality theatre to Suffolk’s villages and now, says Pat, the time has come to develop their profile further.
Pat and Julian are probably best known for their work in creating the mad-cap world of the Eastern Angles Christmas show which they have been involved with (off and on) since 1990.
This year they have decided to take the spirit of the Eastern Angles Christmas show and apply it to their work.
“Ivan (Eastern Angles director) has said to me in the past that he wished that the Christmas show was a little more like the rest of the year’s output,” says Julian. “This year they have brought in a new company to do the Christmas show and so what we have decided is to do for Common Ground is what we normally do for Eastern Angles – a silly, genre-based send-up – Justin and the Argonauts.
“Also, The Count of Monte Cristo will be cut from similar cloth. It will be a romp through the Alexander Dumas book and hopefully there will be something in both shows for everyone from eight to 80. We want to give people a good time. We have always wanted to attract family audiences. We want to offer something different – something which is high quality but is distinctly us.”
Pat and Julian’s ability to breathe new life into existing work was very noticeable on their previous tours of The Prisoner of Zenda and Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein.
“The people in the village halls and community halls were really appreciative that we had come to see them because they all said, ‘This really makes a change from the stuff we get here.’ They recognised that we offered something different and fun.
“They want to come out with the rest of the village and have a laugh.”
Pat believes visiting theatre groups help promote a sense of community because they help keep the village hall the focus of local life.
The pair love getting to grips with classic texts and investing their adaptations with a healthy dose of theatrical mayhem. The Prisoner of Zenda last year was presented as if it were a pub-play. The Count of Monte Cristo will be given an equally off-the-wall framing device. Everyone is aware of books like The Count of Monte Cristo and if they don’t know the book then they will be aware of the recent film with Leonardo di Caprio. Also Alexander Dumas also wrote The Three Musketeers which is very popular on telly at the moment.
“These stories are so well - good, so well written that you can really have fun with the re-telling.”
For most productions the actors will be local professionals. Both Joe Leat and Lorna Garside are quickly becoming regulars in the Common Ground rep company.
“Joe was exceptional in St Finnegan’s, our Eastern Angles show last year, while Lorna has been outstanding in several of our shows, particularly Harriet Walker and then The Tinder Box,” Julian says.
“It’s great that we are developing a cast that people recognise but we want more – more locals – and it’s not about not being able to afford other actors, we really do want to work with local talent because they know the area, they know the stories and they are very, very professional.
“They are good actors and as professional actors ourselves we known that sometimes it’s great not to have to travel to London for work.
“We have a great core company but we do need more. We are hoping that lots of local actors will say: ‘Sod this living in London lark’ and if they have a place in Suffolk then work from home.
“The costs of living in London are prohibitive and if you can do good work outside the capital then why not? There is a good living to be made here in Suffolk, telling Suffolk stories to Suffolk audiences and we want to use Suffolk actors and musicians and also bring on the next generation of Suffolk performers.” Pat agrees.
“We invest a lot in the fact that we deliver a homegrown show. Many of the festivals are about bringing good stuff into the area. We are very much about working with local performers, nurturing local talent and creating a top quality show which we then take to London, so local performers can experience a London audience.”
So, for Pat and Julian, having spent years developing their art for other people, the time has come for them to make a name with their own company.
“It always takes time but people are starting to recognise our work and are inviting us back. They know that they will also be treated to a fun and thrilling night at the theatre and that theatre will always be on their doorstep.”
The Count of Monte Cristo is on tour until October 3.
Justin and the Argonauts runs from December 18 to January 9. Full details on tour locations and tickets available at: http://www.commongroundtc.co.uk/