Artist mission – Alan Lane in Colchester

As part of the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project Fuel have been inviting artists to undertake missions to each of the places that we are working in. As part of their mission they will be contributing to this blog. We are delighted to present this mission blog post from Alan Lane.  You can find out more about the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood project at

I stop off for a quick break on the A14 just after I’ve passed Cambridge. I look at the map and it’s clear to me that I’m approaching this town from the wrong way; the trains and proper roads all travel the other way. From Leeds- the North- it’s been 4 hours of dual carriage way- not even motorway. Trundling along beside increasingly unfeasibly large agricultural equipment. I’m aware that if I was coming from London it would have been a 40 minute train journey straight to Liverpool Street.

Where I live it still feels like we’re in recession. When last I was wandering around Liverpool Street it was clear that this was an area not still in recession. I wonder where on the spectrum of these two Englands Colchester will fall.


First impressions were of the huge amounts of boys hugging. Unusually large number of groups of young men with new haircuts hugging.

A man stood outside a barbers with the most extraordinary mediterranean eyes- good god he looks like something out of the sea- stunning.

I’ve been here 2 minutes, Colchester might be the most homoerotic place in the world.

And hairdressers. I have never seen so many hairdressers. It makes a lot of sense of why everyone looks so bloody good here.

The homoeroticism fades as I spend more time here but the unbelievable number of barbers particularly is a regular theme of my day.


I nip into a shop I see sells postcards and ask the owner where the good restaurants are in time where I could get dinner later on. “I can’t help you I don’t use restaurants.  But there’s an exciting new place up near the church. The young people are going.” I don’t know what any of this means. I walk to the church but can’t see anything that might be attracting the youth. There is a Wimpy’s though. I don’t think he meant here but seeing Wimpy’s always raises my spirits.

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A sign that says Essex Cares. Popped in for a coffee in what looked like a community cafe right next to the tourist centre but was more a drop in centre for adults with mental issues. My arrival seemed to upset a lot of of the participants which wasn’t what I intended obviously. A woman asked my name across the cafe in a loud voice usually reserved for outside. Alan I replied. She then warded me off with what I thought at first was a crucifix. It turned out to be a Pudsey Bear. I felt a bit of a dick after that, which is no-one’s fault but my own, so I left. I popped in because I’d seen an ad for “Funky Drama Classes” in the window and wanted to ask what that was about. Now we’ll never know.

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Independent shops everywhere. I wonder if it’s just where I’m looking but a lot more independent restaurants and shops than you’d expect. I remember reading in the Stockton report from someone that a new independent Greek restaurant was sign of potential for risk taking audience in Stockton- seen 10 independent restaurants just on the walk from the car park to the hotel. Different worlds. More Liverpool Street than Liverpool it seems.

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Is the new art gallery any good? I asked the woman at the Tourist centre.

“It’s very contemporary. If you like very very contemporary things it’s great. The Arts Centre? Yeah they are very good. I went to sing along a wicker man the other night.”

Sing along a wicker man is a thing that exists in the world. And they say there isn’t a God.


‘Excuse me? Hi. Wonder if you could help. Where is the military base? The Barracks? Where can I find them?’ I ask a woman on the street.

“They are on Military Road.” She replies.

‘Ah, well should have guessed.”

She’s very pretty but that is not why I’ve asked her, she looked friendlier than the others. Now I am worried that she is going to think that is why I asked her and I’m getting flustered.

“Which way is Military Road?”

She points a way.

“Does this feel like a military town?” I ask. In for a penny in for a pound and she already thinks I’m a dick. Probably.

‘What do you mean?’ She’s now looking at me funny. I am a dick.

“Well I can’t see any men in uniforms or anything like that.”

‘They keep themselves to themselves. Most of them are away, abroad.’

“Except for Friday nights” Her mate now chips in.

‘They don’t go drinking in their uniforms though, do they?’

“No. But there are squaddy pubs. Pubs everyone knows are theirs.”

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The Art Gallery, Firstsite is a new sexy looking building. There are at least 60, maybe even 100, teenagers- all haircuts and clothes that look uncomfortable- sat outside the main doors on the floor and surrounding walls. The whole picture (glass building, haircuts, kids on floor) looks suddenly very European.

Inside I am one of 4 or 5 people which feels strange because it’s a very big art gallery. The LARGE Sophie Von Hellermann mural that splashes and drips the entire length of the gallery outlines (in the way you outline last night’s dream at breakfast) the entire history of the town. It is rather brilliant. Clearly ludicrous at times but epic and often beautiful. By contrast her smaller pieces based on idioms in the English language feel smug and demonstrative. Don’t really understand how the same person did both things.

I get a coffee in the entirely empty cafe. “Do the kids out front ever come in?” I ask the waitress.

‘Sometimes but they are not allowed down this end’ she says. ‘It’s a council owned thing so unfortunately it isn’t possible to ban them completely.’

I don’t have the heart to tell her that isn’t what I meant. The coffee is excellent.

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I find the Headway Theatre. The reception is manned by a man who appears to be dealing with 3 or 4 phone calls at once. The autumn season has just gone on sale. I wait for him to finish. This is the home of amateur theatre in the town. “Not all amateur theatre companies come here, and we have some from outside of town too but we like to think that we are the home of the town’s amateur theatre because we are.” They are busy it looks like from the programme. He’s busy too, the phone is ringing again so I bugger off.

I notice at the Mercury that there are some amateur companies playing there as well this season. The town has a passion for theatre clearly.

Little girl of about 8 gives me a flyer- colour photocopied A4 paper- for Colchester Free Festival. There are 7 or 8 other kids all handing out the flyers- they are very funny with their enthusiasm for something they don’t quite understand. I find the mum. She’s been dragged in because her brother is something to do with the organising committee. “It’s very popular. Especially with the younger, more professional lot.” A couple in office clothes in their early 20’s with very nice haircuts (why has everyone in this town just come from the hairdressers!) pass- she nods at them. “People like that, nice young people. They really like it. I’ll take the kids. We’ll have a lot of fun. It’s a regular thing.”

I look at the flyer. I don’t recognise any of the names. The kids are trying to give me a second flyer. Smart tactic having them hand out the flyers, “no-one is going to say no to them are they?” says mum as I take yet another flyer.


Jordana walks me around town. She lives in Tiptree, where the jam comes from. She talks of the frustration there was in some when they cut the ensemble at the Mercury. And the different frustration there was in some when the art gallery promised so much, cost so much and delivered not so much.

She takes me around the night-time hotspots of the town. At some point in the past I will have asked to see them although as she’s showing me them I can’t recall the exact thought that tells me why past Alan thought this. It doesn’t matter, Jordana is wise about this town.

“There is a sense that everybody thinks Colchester is fine, everything is comfortable and no-one wants to rock the boat.”

She talks about how some who might otherwise be interested in what is happening with the programme over on campus are put off because there is an idea that it is ‘student theatre’.

I think that some of the best theatre I’ve ever seen is ‘student theatre’ but I know what she means.


All over the town there are models of giraffes. It’s for the zoo’s 50th birthday. School kids and companies have painted them. It is the most polite, clean pieces of public art I’ve ever seen. I am amazed that there wasn’t someone who thought that they should chop the head off one of their statues and replace it with the head of a lion or an eagle or something.

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I had the most pleasant afternoon walking around Colchester. It’s a really lovely market town. I had chats with lots of incredibly friendly people. But, and I was trying quite hard towards the end, I struggled to find anyone who was enthusiastic or excited about anything. I asked 5 people “What culture is there in town?” most of them answered “The castle is shut this year.” I’m not being snidey, that seems a fair reflection of my time here. There is clear passion in a thriving amateur dramatics world as well as the interesting work out at the campus. But it is all working in isolation.

It is a very vanilla town. I spent a part of the afternoon wondering how a piece of queer spectacle would go down.

It is a very compartmentalised town.

I was told that large sections of the old army bases were now empty waiting for redevelopment. A show that could take up residence in these spaces- unseen and unknown by the majority of the town- could be really exciting as it would break some of that compartmentalised attitude down.


Some time ago there is an actor from the Mercury Ensemble in the pub around the corner from the theatre. His conversation is interrupted by an elderly couple who lean in smiling, “We saw the show last night and we could hear everything. Everything.” They patted his arm and left happy that they’d supported their local theatre.

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