The Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton, which has just gone into administration, (Government funding has been slashed) opened in 1977 when I was nearly two years old. It was the only theatre for miles around. The ins and outs of the funding struggle can be read elsewhere, but what did the place mean to one small person, growing up on a farm, sixteen miles away, in the middle of nowhere?
The first time I went to The Brewhouse is also one of my first memories. My uncle was acting with a troupe on stage. My uncle had been run over by a bus when he was 17 and lost both his legs but was now performing with other disabled actors.
Another shady, hazy memory: I was taken to the ballet. Imagine that! A scruffy farm girl with a deep interest in cowpats, and only one TV in the house, taken to see such a spectacle. I remember the thump of the dancers' feet on the stage, totally at odds with their pink fairy-like forms.
My primary school bussed a class of us there and I saw my first professional play: ‘The Selfish Shellfish’ It was dark and scary. A large cloth was used to represent an oil slick. An actress wore a spiked hat, she was an anemone. I had never seen anything like it and it blew my rural brain. (I went to the cinema just twice as a child, these were totally new experiences)
The theatre, I understood, was where you went and were not allowed to wear your wellies. You wore your best trousers. But of course it became much, much more than that.
Now eleven, my friend Meena was chosen to sing during a local production of Madame Butterfly, and perform on stage. (She later became a ‘proper’ singer) It felt like an awesome opportunity, and it was. The theatre became a place where, not only could you watch, you could take part. Then somehow I got to join in a young play writer’s workshop. The organisers had come down from Actual London. There was a woman who wore all black! Then my secondary school took us to see a professional touring company perform Romeo and Juliet. It was unexpectedly funny and terrifying and exploded for good those endless excruciating readings in lessons.
And then, when I developed an interest in music, I got to perform on the stage, in the mighty Battle of the Bands. Singing on a professional stage was a big experience for a person who was used to warbling at school events. (I did end up singing for a living for a while -for better or worse) I also got to perform a play I wrote and acted in for my A level Theatre Studies.
I remember a woman who used to ramble around the high street and parks of Taunton all day, it seemed, doing nothing particular. She was a well known face and someone I would worry about. Was she OK? She got hold of a camera and eventually The Brewhouse hosted an exhibition of her pictures. The place was packed.
It is impossible to quantify the value of a small country theatre. At the risk of rambling on, or sounding pompous, the theatre feeds dreams, and creates them. It allows us to clamber out of our backgrounds and go somewhere new, should we wish. Watching brilliant professional touring companies was revelatory. And yes, eventually, the students who learned to work backstage, to operate the bar, who volunteered to help with the lights, the box office, to write and run small shows. We went on and did more things. Things that earned money and paid taxes.
There is no financial spreadsheet for inspiration, and generating aspiration, and for building confidence and skills.
And now I have moved back to Somerset and am a firm punter. As well as adult events I regularly take (took) my children to the theatre to see glorious children’s shows, the likes of which are everywhere in the city, and hardly anywhere down here in Somerset. My three year old recently pointed at a picture of a debonair actor who played ‘Ratty’ in The Brewhouse’s in-house production of ‘The Wind in The Willows’ and said ‘I want to be him!’ (an excellent progression from the Power Ranger role model he previously aspired to)
There are art groups for toddlers, a thriving youth theatre, a cinema. The program is/was packed with every sort of theatre and music you could wish for. And now it has gone. Closed down. It has been stopped in its tracks.
I’m not even mentioning the hours of pure fun I’ve had at the place, watching brilliant shows, author talks, music, dancing, local and national performers and comedians... I have a friend who has 2 children who have been practising flat out, in all their spare time for the gang shows that the scout organisation performs in April. I imagine all these small people will be very sad.
The Brewhouse Theatre has touched my life, and thousands and thousands of others.
What a miserable day this is for Taunton. It has become a little more grey. A little more dead.