Matthew Townshend started his career as an actor. He trained at drama school and became a member of the National Youth Theatre before moving into directing and producing, working in education and youth theatres.
He has appeared on stage nationwide, including performing in more than twenty seasons of pantomime alongside Barbara Windsor, Jack Smethurst, and the Nolan’s. As a writer and director, he was responsible for the first ever Christmas show in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing theatre. After many years on stage he went on to become Artistic Director of the Young National Trust Theatre, the National Trust’s prestigious Theatre-in-Education company.
In the year 2000, Matthew launched Matthew Townshend Productions (mtp), a project-based company which produces and tours large and small scale productions across the UK to venues of all sizes including rural events at churches, barns, historic mansions, pub gardens and much more.
Following a family move to Woodbridge, Matthew decided to get involved with the well-known summer theatre season in Frinton, as a manager and producer, a role which lasted two years. By the end of 2018, when Suffolk Summer Theatres closed, a new door opened for Matthew, which welcomed the start of Theatre on the Coast.
The company has technically existed for 80 years, under different branding, however it remains one of the few and longest lasting professional summer repertory seasons in the UK. For those who may not know, repertory theatre is usually a western theatre or opera production in which a resident company presents works from a specified repertoire, usually in alternation or rotation – and traditionally it is often classic playwrights such Shakespeare, Pinter and Wilde.
Matthew explains, “It’s a bit of a throwback in some ways because repertory theatre doesn’t really exist now, it disappeared pretty much by the 1970s/1980s. It’s a really important part of our arts heritage scene. It’s probably regarded as a bit of an eccentric hanger-on, so one of the things I’ve been very aware of is dragging it into the 21st century and bringing in plays of new shows and writing that are either more current or are brand new looks at classic plays.”
This year’s projects from Theatre on the Coast are wide-ranging. As a company, they decided to play it cautiously, selling the season at a reduced capacity. There will still be a one-way system for the audience with the suggestion that people continue to wear masks while on the premises. In terms of the actors and the crew, the team has been looking into creating more space backstage and using all tools they have learnt over the past 15 months.
They hope to be back with the fantastic season of new productions they have lined-up, and in terms of events, they are reviving Terry Johnson’s comedy Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick. “Like many younger actors of the time, I worked with Barbara Windsor in the 1990s and I saw the play when it opened in London.” Matthew said. “It’s a great tribute to a very British comedy tradition and to a great figure in British theatre that we sadly lost last year” he adds.
Next up, patron Vicki Michelle is coming to do the play that she first opened in London at the Kings Head, Hello Norma Jeane, which hasn’t been seen outside of London yet. Following that, there’s Tomfoolery, which is the Cameron Mackintosh and Robyn Ray revue from Tom Lehrer. The company last did it in 2012 and toured it with great success. Matthew quips, “If there was ever a show for our times, then this is it. With songs like ‘I Got It from Agnes’ and ‘We Will All Go Together When We Go’, I think it’s a great show to bring back to the stage. It’s cynical and funny, the songs are 60 years old, but they are still absolutely as relevant as they were then. Tom Lehrer is still alive; he’s in 90s and is a brilliantly celebrated songwriter, pianist, and stand-up comedian.”
In addition, there will be the Monkey Business Circus on Southwold Common, and an opportunity for young people to get involved and make a play in a day, using Treasure Island as the theme. Perhaps Contraption, will also be visiting Southwold for a day. Matthew describes them as an “amazing, crazy brass band. It’s bonkers but brilliant”.
“This summer will be about opening up what was the previous heritage of the summer theatre season, reaching out to new audiences, getting opportunities for people to actually get back to being engaged in the arts, and also presenting fresh new productions all in that context of wondering whether we’ll actually reopen again. It’s busy and it’s exciting, but it’s also really scary,” Matthew explains.
At the time Matthew and I had this conversation, we were still awaiting the news for reopening on the 19th of July. As it stands, the light is green on the go ahead, but there are still a lot of risks.
Matthew says “It is really difficult to plan, and I don’t envy anybody [who has to]. In summer 2020 I made the decision not to close, cancel or postpone; so we went ahead and did six new shows over four weekends. We rehearsed them in a week, and then we filmed them at the end of the week, with a tiny audience of 40 people sitting in a 240-seat venue, all masked up and screened off; and we streamed those shows, which was a great learning experience. I’m still completely amazed that we managed to do it. We learned a lot of lessons along the way.”
Delving deeper into the digital realm, we discussed whether he thought it would be a positive thing for the industry. He admits, “It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Live performance actually only really works when it’s live and when you’re there because that’s the way it’s made. There is a magic and a relationship between the performers and the audience. But I think it’s certainly going to become much more a part of the way theatres present their work, and I suspect we will go on using it alongside others. I really hope that we’re going to see what we’ve learned grow into something because it needs investment to make it available to all and to do well. It’s expensive and you’ve got to have people who know what they’re doing.”
While we await the full-scale return of theatre, Matthew’s plea for those who love the arts is to stay local; whether it’s smaller regional theatres, arts centres, studios, or anywhere under 250 seats for instance, they really need support. “We’ve been really bowled over by the support we had when we put out a CrowdFunder to try and raise the money we needed to move ahead to this season. In less than two weeks, we raised over a third more than our target, and these were people who live locally who were putting their hands in their pockets, so that really shows that there’s a need. Save some money on the train fare and find something that’s happening locally!” he shares.
I couldn’t resist the urge to end on a fun question, so I asked Matthew if there was a show he would love to produce or do an adaptation of, that he hasn’t done yet, and he replied, “Funnily enough, Harold Brighouse who was the great Salford-born writer that wrote Hobson’s Choice, also wrote another play about football called The Game; which was first published in 1920. It’s about a local football team, and it’s a great play, so I think while we’re on the up, this is the time to celebrate the wonderful game.”
For more information or to book any of the shows visit mtproductions.co.uk/theatre-on-the-coast.