The History of Gilbert & Sullivan in Swaffham Bulbeck

By founding member Geoff Reed

Our theatrical productions in Swaffham Bulbeck, near Cambridge, England started in 1982 when I suggested to the local choral group that we might like to try something different.  We needed a place to perform and we settled on the Long Barn, by kind permission of David Rayner and decided to perform ‘TRIAL BY JURY’ together with a one-act play ‘THE AREA BELLE‘.  The shows are always put on in early summer because it originally suited the availability of the Long Barn, used for turkey rearing, and the first or second week in June has stuck ever since.

The Long Barn was a challenge in itself in terms of staging as it was 100ft long but only 16ft 7ins wide. It was amazing that we managed to squeeze a 30+ ensemble on to the stage! The great thing about the barn was its acoustic: you could hear a pin drop right at the back of the auditorium. But it only just about accommodated the audience demand and everything had to be completely dismantled after each show and taken away to store.

When, in 1988, we were told that the barn was to be converted into offices another generous local farmer came to our rescue with the offer of the big portal-framed barn adjacent to his grain silos at Mitchell Lodge Farm.  As is often the way in the aftermath of apparent setbacks, this triggered a rapid progression as our size constraints were instantly dispelled, which enabled us to mount more ambitious productions to nightly audiences of 250. However, that was counteracted by the triple threats of freezing cold winds funnelled through the barn, plus either deafening rain-drops or boiling heat on the tin roof, any or all of which can represent summer in rural England. But the shows were highly successfully performed there for 18 happy years.

Having performed the most popular G & S shows more than once there was always a desire on the part of the members to make sure that the full set of 14 operettas were staged.  In 2003 the rarely performed ‘THE GRAND DUKE‘ was presented to critical acclaim and, in 2005, ‘UTOPIA LIMITED’ completed the repertoire.

Yet again though, our venue had to give way to potential redevelopment and in 2006 we bade farewell to that barn with a performance of ‘THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE‘.  Our concern over finding a new venue was dispelled when David and Carol Turner kindly offered the use of their modern barn at Downing Farm.  We moved over the winter/spring period of 2007 and a new and exciting theatre was created with a 10m wide raked stage.  The height of the barn transformed the staging, facilitating tall scenery and backdrops and high quality professional lighting.  Its width enables a 200 strong audience to be seated in just 7-10 rows giving excellent visual and aural quality for everyone.  Our productions were extended to 5 performances to satisfy demand.

The latest move was an expensive venture, but the Society managed to recoup the costs over three years which provided a solid foundation for a strong future of theatrical achievement. A generous grant from ADeC (Arts Development in East Cambridgeshire) for the installation of a fire exit was also gratefully received.

Our first show in the new barn in 2007 was ‘HMS PINAFORE‘ and this was followed by ‘THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD‘ and ‘THE MIKADO‘, the latter using a bright red and gold setting reminiscent of The Hot Mikado. A double bill of ‘THE ZOO‘ and ‘TRIAL BY JURY‘ in 2010 was followed by ‘THE SORCERER‘ in 2011 and the theatre is now firmly established in its present venue.

The shows are presented with a 12 -15 member wind and percussion ensemble. Professional costumes are used and we have always remained faithful to Gilbert and Sullivan’s original work whilst incorporating inventive ideas and often some mechanised props.