‘Our creative county’: Andrew Clarke talks to Libby Purves

PUBLISHED: 12:15 12 August 2014 | UPDATED: 12:15 12 August 2014

Libby Purves at the stables at her home in Middleton, Suffolk. Pic Clifford Hicks.

Libby Purves at the stables at her home in Middleton, Suffolk. Pic Clifford Hicks.

Clifford Hicks.

Suffolk is steadily gaining a reputation for being a hotbed of creativity. Cultural commentator Libby Purves tells Andrew Clarke how she sees recent developments in her home county

Libby Purves: author and presenter of BBC Radio 4's Midweek programme - Wednesdays at 9am - and The Learning Curve. Web link: www.bbc.co.uk/radio4  Photograph: BBC
eadt 16 01 07Libby Purves: author and presenter of BBC Radio 4's Midweek programme - Wednesdays at 9am - and The Learning Curve. Web link: www.bbc.co.uk/radio4 Photograph: BBC eadt 16 01 07

Theatre critic Libby Purves knows talent when she sees it. The Radio Four Midweek broadcaster and theatre critic has spent years watching the best companies, writers and actors perform across the country but she maintains that Suffolk has a special place in the British creative economy.

Libby, who lives with broadcaster husband Paul Heiney, in north Suffolk, said that HighTide, Eastern Angles and the New Wolsey Theatre are all highly regarded in her opinion.

Libby worked for three years as chief theatre critic on The Times before being let go in late 2013 during an editorial re-organisation. Unfazed by her dismissal, Libby immediately contacted friends to set up theatrecat.com, her own online review site.

She continues to attend first nights and travels all round the country to attend shows, paying special attention to touring productions and long-running shows.

She says she has been long impressed by the quality of work coming out of Suffolk and is pleased that local theatres are starting to spread their wings and not only sending work out on tour across the country but enticing people to come and experience art and culture in Suffolk.

“Aldeburgh and HighTide continue to do their thing. Latitude is now one of the big hitters and they are pull people into the county but there’s an awful lot of good >>

>> work coming out of homegrown companies like Eastern Angles and the New Wolsey Theatre.

“On my website I do Monday tour alerts about shows touring around Britain and if there is something I have liked then I flag up where it is going to next. Increasingly I am flagging up Suffolk productions things like Miss Nightingale or Our House or closer to home something like John Clare from Eastern Angles.

“What needs to be done is for publications to have a much better knowledge of the touring economy. Too many of the papers just focus on what is happening in London. Sure, that’s important, but it’s only part of the picture.”

She said that it’s been fascinating to see Suffolk’s cultural provision change and mature over the years. “I was always a theatregoer but I always was tempted to go and see stuff in Cambridge or Norwich or went down to London but when I got the Times theatre job I remember saying to the first night editor: ‘Hey look there’s a really good production at the Theatre Royal, Bury, we should be covering it, but

because of the fabulousness of the provision in the north and with Bath and Bristol being hotbeds of new work, East Anglia tends to get forgotten.

“I find that you get some wonderful originality out of town. For example, look at Dick Turpin which Bury did recently or the work by Julian Harries and Pat Whymark, both with Eastern Angles and their own productions. They are both working within a wide theatre ecology but often on a shoe-string budget which forces them to be inventive and creative. This produces a wonderfully wacky way of doing things which is hugely rewarding and displays some terrific originality which you don’t get in a safer production in town.

“Having said that, you can go to Edinburgh and see a whole range of productions that were born here – just look at what comes out of the New Wolsey’s Pulse festival.”

She said that HighTide, the new writing theatre festival based in Halesworth, had also blossomed in a very short space of time.

“When HighTide first started you would think that perhaps one production in three would go somewhere but then it just took off. Experienced people like Diana Quick and Bill Nighy got behind it and really believed in it.

“It was at that point that it started to get that festival feel – rather like a mini-Edinburgh – with critics prepared to come down from London and see three or four shows over a weekend.

“What’s more they take HighTide seriously. Work that is premiered here goes on to be staged elsewhere. For example the astonishing play Mudlarks, which I saw in Halesworth last year, went into London. It is one of the best new plays I have seen for a very long time and it started life here in Suffolk.”

She said that with London shows closing at an alarming rate, grassroots theatre was increasingly important as it provided new work which could go on and supply larger theatres in the West End and in major cities across the UK.

“East Anglia is starting to gain a reputation for producing excellent grassroots arts and theatre. Look at Aldeburgh Music and DanceEast attracting companies here who you would only expect to see on the SouthBank.

“Also performers love it because they get an audience who are really enjoying what they are seeing. Audiences are warmer and the performers get a sense of gratitude that they don’t receive in the capital.

“Suffolk audiences are intelligent and they are not easily impressed by big names but they are impressed by good work which is why Bury Theatre Royal, Eastern Angles, the Wolsey and HighTide do so well.

“I saw Eastern Angles production of John Clare at a small community hall in Beccles and it was a brilliant evening. The audience was very thoughtful and it was with me for the whole weekend. I remembering thinking: ‘It’s going to be okay when I retire because there’s so much good stuff going on here.”

And the other thing we have is The Pumphouse in Aldeburgh. I recently saw something in the Trafalgar Studios in London – I Found My Horn – which I first saw in Aldeburgh’s Pumphouse with about 25 people. It’s been lengthened and developed but it’s the same show that started life here in Suffolk.”

She said that the best way forward for Suffolk was to provide a mix of offerings. It was important to attract cultural tourists but also needs to serve local people. “It needs to attract local audiences as well as the out of towners.

“I believe the future is extraordinarily bright. As well as generating its own shows, I notice that East Anglia is attracting some first rate touring shows. We have every reason to feel positive.”

Libby Purves writes theatre reviews on www.theatrecat.com

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