FROME, recently named as one of the “coolest” towns in Britian, has a thriving arts scene which for years has been centred on the Merlin Theatre on Frome College campus.
An imaginative and varied winter programme has begun, bringing local players, touring companies, acclaimed comics, musicians, and guest appearances from the Royal Shakespeare Company, the New York Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Ballet and even a Donald Trump impersonator.
Add this the programmes at the Cheese and Grain, Silk Mill, Rook Lane Chapel, the Memorial Theatre, Black Swan, the Frome Festival and the town’s other thriving venues and it’s not hard to see why Frome is earning a reputation as the “artsiest place around”.
The Merlin has been leading the way for more than 40 years with its lively, clever mixture of community involvement, professional standards, local and national productions, theatre, song, dance and spoken word.
Named after the famous, and local, wizard in the hope of attracting some of his magic, perhaps the Merlin’s greatest trick has been to survive in austere times. At the peak of grant largesse, the Merlin received £135,000 a year from the Arts Council and from Somerset, Mendip and Frome councils: now it’s down to £2,000 from the Town Council.
“It’s been a struggle,” says Claudia Pepler, who has been closely involved with the theatre for 18 years and its director for the last eight. “Not only have we had to cope with a dramatically reduced budget, but we’re now also facing much more competition from all the other newer and excellent venues in Frome.
“Our great strength is our community here in Frome, whether they’re in their seats watching family and friends up on the stage, up on the stage themselves, backstage learning to work in theatre as part of our highly-skilled production team, or volunteering to do everything and everything welcoming audiences front-of-house to doing the books.”
For this reason the Merlin has decided to refocus its work by concentrating on its vital role as a community theatre. From the new year, the emphasis will be less on touring companies and more on local productions, supplemented by the hugely popular live screenings from the great national and international companies like the RSC, National Theatre and New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
“Some people think live screening is still one fixed camera and no atmosphere,” says Claudia. “But these days it’s clever, multi-angle stuff with very high production values that give you a different – but equally exciting – experience from being there. And you’re seeing it for £14 in the comfort of your own town!”
Coming up are live screenings including Carlos Acosta’s Don Quixote and Mark Gatiss in Alan Bennet’s The Madness of George III.
The venue’s close associations with contemporary dance will continue. A Mark Bruce production is already in the 2020 diary.
The Frome theatre’s in-house offerings include the eagerly awaited production of Journey’s End, timed to coincide with Frome’s other remembrances of the end of the First World War, and a Christmas production of The Nutcracker, following last year’s award-winning Hansel and Gretel. The highly-praised Frome Drama Club is putting on Pygmalion at the end of November.
“The Merlin is a great, friendly little place,” says Claudia. “It kind of gets under your skin and you want to be part of it. We would love to have even more volunteers (we are a charity!) – providing expertise and enthusiasm. We need new board members and we need need more sponsors – if you’re a business looking to raise your profile in Frome, there’s no better place than the Merlin.
“Or just come along and have a good time at your very own theatre.”
Pictured are volunteers Dinah Bardgett and David Gatliffe, with Claudia, and Hilary Gilmore, Philip de Glanville and Geoff Clark.