Major production of Summer Holiday coming to the east coast this summer
- Credit: Contributed
Having survived two summers in lockdown, theatre producer Matthew Townshend, the driving force behind Southwold’s Theatre-on-the-Coast, is planning something a little different this year. He’s inviting everyone to join him on a Summer Holiday.
Matthew is all set to stage a production of the bright and breezy Cliff Richard musical, marking the 60th anniversary next year of the original movie in which a group of mates take a London double-decker bus on a trip to Greece.
This professional show will be augmented by local dancers and will tour the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts, starting Southwold before heading to Sheringham and finishing in Great Yarmouth.
Matthew, who is based in Woodbridge, says it’s a fun, upbeat show, designed to make everyone feel good and remind them about the joys of live performance.
“After enduring two years of lockdown and uncertainty, it’s exactly the sort of show to get people out of their homes and enjoying each other’s company again. It’s all about fostering friendships and bolstering that sense of community – which has taken a bit of a battering of late as we have been hidden away from one another.
“The show makes for a great night out. It captures that sense of youthful adventure, the thrill of young love and the joy of escaping to the sunshine. It’s the ultimate feelgood musical and it just full of colour and optimism. The whole thing says summer!”
The performances are also a huge ‘thank you’ to audiences who responded to a crowd-funding appeal last year which helped Theatre-on-the-Coast make it through the pandemic. The people of Southwold – and beyond – raised £8,000 to allow last year’s summer season to go ahead after the late-notice relaxing of the Covid restrictions.
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It is clear that Matthew is very grateful and quite moved by the demonstration of public support for the theatre. “We couldn’t have done it without the generosity of the townspeople. It was a huge vote of confidence. Our target was £6,000 but they smashed it!"
Although public support is there, Matthew is looking for additional ways to ensure summer theatre and regional touring theatre is fit for the future by forging links with other theatres and producers.
“I was talking to Debbie Thompson at Sheringham Theatre in 2019, well before the pandemic struck, about teaming up and producing work together. I am a great believer in co-operation and collaboration. That is the way forward. Theatre is an expensive endeavour so if you can share costs, it makes everything much more economic.
“I have long thought that we should be sharing more shows. We should be going up and down the coast a lot more than we do. The audiences don’t overlap, so it makes both artistic and financial sense. It allows us to employ people for longer, more people get to see our work, so everyone wins.”
It also makes a large-scale musical like Summer Holiday a possibility. It’s something that Matthew could not have attempted had it just been playing in Southwold.
After he started work on researching the time period for the musical, he discovered that Cliff and the Shadows were regular visitors to the east coast during the late 50s and early 60s. “It was like they were giving us their blessing. I couldn’t believe it. Lowestoft, Yarmouth and Cromer was their stamping ground. They regularly played in the very places where we shall be taking Summer Holiday, so we hope that those young teenyboppers who saw them live back in the day, dust off their colourful jackets and skirts and come and relive their youth at the show.
“And it still has an amazing recognition factor for a musical which is 60 years old next year. I’ve been talking to people of all ages and when they ask me what I am doing next, I say it’s a show about a group of lads who go off on holiday in a double-decker bus and they nod their heads and say: “Oh yeah, Summer Holiday. Everybody still knows it and why do they know it? Because it is great fun. It captures Britain in a pre-cynical age – in happier times – when summers were long, endless days of sunshine, or seemed that way because everyone was so much more optimistic.
“Also, the songs are really good. Having not seen it for many years I was worried that apart from one or two hits the rest of the material might be a bit cheesy but not a bit of it. Everything is really good and there are some lovely lyrics to some of the songs, quite witty and funny. There will be some lovely tongue-in-cheek moments in the show.”
Among the Cliff Richard hits featured are: Bachelor Boy, Move It, Living Doll, The Young Ones, I Could Easily Fall in Love with You, On the Beach, In the Country and the title track, Summer Holiday.
“What draws you in is the fact that the score is so well done – the people behind this show were folk like George Martin and Norrie Paramor who worked with big orchestras, worked in the West End but also worked in rock and pop. They had a foot in both camps and their expertise shines through.”
Casting is currently being completed, and before Summer Holiday goes into full-scale rehearsals, Matthew is holding auditions in three towns it will be visiting. He wants the professional cast to be augmented with energetic local dancers who will make up the chorus for some spectacular group numbers.
“Some of the dancers who we have cast already have made it known that they would love to do the whole tour while others are just happy doing the shows close to where they live. Again, I am just overwhelmed by the enthusiasm that everyone is showing, which proves to me that there is still great interest in theatre and still a huge need for live performance in people’s lives.”
This is something he has instinctively known since he was a cathedral chorister as a young boy, with the desire to entertain being embedded in his DNA. “My grandfather on my mother’s side was an end-of-the-pier performer before he emigrated to East Africa after the First World War, where my mother was born. I have a whole bunch of letters, fan mail, that was sent to him. He was in something called The Bizzy Bees Theatrical Troupe. My mother also caught the bug and became a lecturer in English and Drama at a college in Ghana, West Africa.
“I was sent to school in Kent and was in all the school plays, joined the National Youth Theatre and then went to university at Cambridge.”
Prior to studying at Cambridge he was a member of the National Youth Theatre but as he got older, he became increasingly interested in producing and started investigating what went into staging shows rather than being in shows.
“When I was at Cambridge, I quickly discovered that student drama didn’t really grab me, so I found myself getting involved with the Cambridge Arts Theatre which was very ‘town and gown’. It had very good relations with the university, and I was offered the opportunity to run their youth theatre. I was then asked to direct two of their summer musicals and that was the start of it all really.”
Matthew said after leaving Cambridge he went to drama school but soon realised he didn’t really want to be an actor. He was much more interested in being a director or producer, having had that experience at the Arts Theatre.
“After I graduated, I went back to the National Youth Theatre as an associate director. I also did my teaching qualification to allow me to teach at universities and colleges and that’s me really. I sort of found myself through life without any real masterplan.
“I started work directing plays in Stevenage, joining the National Trust doing specially commissioned, educational, history-based plays before starting Matthew Townsend Productions in 2000. I worked with institutions like the Imperial War Museum in London and closer to home at Duxford before I was offered the opportunity to produce the official 50th anniversary tour of Salad Days in 2005 and that changed everything again.”
Since then, Matthew’s productions have been very much project-based, touring productions of timeless classics like Hobson’s Choice, Noel and Gertie as well as taking over Frinton Summer Theatre and creating Theatre-on-the-Coast to fill the gap left by Jill Freud’s Southwold Summer Theatre.
Matthew is based in Woodbridge and from his location on Suffolk’s heritage coast, he can gauge the changes in people’s habits and expectations since lockdown.
“We toured productions of, Of Mice and Men and Frankenstein, written for the stage by the wonderful Scottish writer by Rona Munro, in 2019 just before Covid struck and there were signs that change was on the way, but I think that lockdown has just accelerated things faster than we expected.
“Both Of Mice and Men and Frankenstein were co-productions with Selladoor and I think that this sort of collaboration is very much the future of regional touring theatre.
“The demand for live theatre is still very much there, but the pandemic has opened up cracks in the theatrical landscape which had been papered over before. As a result, I think, the way we go about making theatre has to change, it has to evolve to allow us to work more efficiently."
As for personal ambitions, Matthew plans to step back ‘a little’ to allow him to study for a PHD, and he also plans to carry on developing theatre-in-education resources as this area is still a passion for him, particularly as drama in schools remains in danger of being side-lined – something which clearly agitates him.
Matthew describes the arts as ‘transformative’ both for those wanting to go and work in the profession, as well as for those developing life skills such as public speaking, confidence building and movement. “Learning how deliver a speech is a huge life skill. It’s all about pacing, timing and emphasis. The arts is also about developing hidden talents which the young person may not know they have and it also helps develop communication skills and helps people to work as part of a team.”
Summer Holiday runs from August 9 to 27, playing at the Big Barn Theatre, by the Southwold Maize Maze, from August 9 to 13, Sheringham Little Theatre, from August 16 to 20, and St George’s Theatre, Great Yarmouth, from August 23 to27. Booking details are available at mtproductions.co.uk/theatre-on-the-coast