A private boycott has the wistful element of futility. Still, there is something sweetly satisfying about boycotting the eight-screen Cineworld that has made our ancient market town look a little more like Croydon. I have stayed faithful to the miniature cinema (two screens) that nestles discreetly in a little side street in the heart of the town. Dreamily called the Hollywood Film Theatre, its survival has become a cause for the sensitive citizens who lament the conversion of the Cattle Market into a shopping mall; the sell-off of the Manor House Museum; the epidemic of Café Rouge/Starbucks/Caffé Nero in the patch officially designated ‘the Medieval grid’.
Bury St Edmunds is never called a market town. It’s called a historic market town, anchored by its ruined Benedictine mona-stery and its diminutive and beautiful cathedral, now graced with a tower that beckons the faithful and anyone with a heart to see. It was here, in 1214, that the English barons met and swore an oath in the abbey to force the king to sign Magna Carta, giving rise to the town motto: ‘Shrine of a king, Cradle of the law.’ But a sense of history is a fragile thing. The ploughed fields that surrounded this town are slowly being covered with houses packed as close as cotton in August. Rumours abound of a vast wind-farm in the most beautiful valley outside the town. Sometimes, I think the town’s logo should be the rubble stumps of the Abbey aisles, all that is left of one of Christendom’s mightiest buildings, a poignant reminder of man’s destructive urge. And then, just when it seems as if all roads lead to despair, something astonishing happens. A precious piece of history is saved. And not just saved, but painstakingly restored and resurrected.
The Theatre Royal is a diminutive miracle. Built by the architect William Wilkins, it opened its doors in October 1819, a truly modern theatre of the Regency age. It’s designed on a Classical system of proportion, with the performing area the same size as the audience. It seats 350 and looks like a cameo of a theatre. The scale is humane, and, well, perfection. I confess that, for some years, the charm of the Theatre Royal was lost on me. One of only eight Grade I-listed theatres in the country, the lobby was shabby, the seats (purchased second-hand from a cinema in the 1960s) were uncomfortable, and the smell of Lysol strong. The bar was dreary and the loos were not worth the wait. Still, I spent a third of my life sitting through its Christmas pantomimes and saw some of the best plays of my life there. When I heard that there was a Restoration Committee that aimed to raise £5.3 million to return the theatre to its original glory along with a new restaurant and loos on the side I whooped with joy.
Raising such a large sum of money is not easy. The Theatre Royal was lucky to get Sir David Rowland to take on the task. A former head of Lloyd’s and chairman of Nat West, he is a walking Who’s Who of potential donors. He also corralled a group of dedicated workers including his intrepid wife, Diana who organised the most glamorous and imaginative events this part of Suffolk has ever known. When the doors open this week, all who enter will gasp at the miracle that has taken place in the two years the theatre was closed and restored to its original truth and beauty. Something rare and irreplaceable has been saved and made even more wonderful. The citizens of Bury will be dizzy with pride.