Neil Thomas reports on a revival of fortunes at one of the county’s best arts venues.

It is one of Shropshire’s most impressive cultural venues with a theatre, cinema, dance studio and bar.

The Edge Arts Centre at Much Wenlock also attracts some top names in the worlds of comedy and music. Jack Dee, Mark Watson and Zoe Lyons have performed their stand-up shows to sell-out audiences. For a small town venue, you could argue The Edge punches above its weight.

Then, in 2020, the Covid pandemic brought it all to a juddering halt with entertainment venues forced to close their doors temporarily.

At The Edge, though, management changes prolonged the closure and the venue has struggled to get back on course – until now.

Happily, the centre, under a dynamic new management team led by Peter Neale, is putting together an exciting programme of shows and events that promise to restore The Edge’s reputation as one of the county’s leading entertainment venues.

An exciting programme has been unveiled for 2024. On the comedy front Ria Lina brings her stand-up show – Riawakending – to the venue on Saturday May 4.

Comedy star Ria Lina is heading to The Edge in May

In the aftermath of Covid, the comedian and scientist sees the world differently. In her highly anticipated debut tour, Ria tackles the issues of coming out of a pandemic, the new normal, divorce, dating in a the digital world, motherhood and what it really means to be a woman today.

Fearless, provocative, and very funny, Ria Lina is the only Filipina comedian in British stand-up and a hugely admired talent in the comedy industry. Her extensive list of credits includes Live At The Apollo, Have I Got News For You?, Mock the Week, Lovestruck High, Richard Hammond’s Brain Reaction, Richard Osman’s House of Games, The Last Leg and Celebrity Mastermind.

For Peter Neale, leading this renaissance is something of a dream job, albeit a part-time voluntary one. Peter’s day job is as School Business Manager at William Brookes, the co-ed comprehensive for 11-18 year-olds, whose state-of-the-art facilities adjoin centre.

He is relishing the challenge of restoring the fortunes of The Edge, which he views as an important community asset.

“The Edge was certainly missed during the closure and you can tell how valued it is by the level of interest in the new programme,” he reflects.

Regular cinema nights – organised through Arts Alive’s Flicks in Sticks programme – have really caught on with a diverse package of film screenings last November and December including The Fabelmans, The Little Mermaid (2023), The Nettle Dress, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris and perennial favourite A Christmas Carol (the 1984 version with George C Scott filmed in Shrewsbury).

The Nettle Dress was an interesting choice. Released in September 2023, the little-heralded small independent film tells the story of textile artist Allan Brown who, after the death of his beloved wife, embarks on a seven-year challenge to weave a hand-spun dress from stinging nettles foraged in the woods by his home.

“The Nettle Dress was actually suggested to us by a member of the public. A lot of people, including me, had never heard of it but it sounded interesting and we sold quite a few tickets for it. It was a little gem, a very moving film, a bit of a tear-jerker,” Peter says.

“The Edge is for everyone in the community and, as with The Nettle Dress, we are always open to suggestions for our programme. If people want something that’s maybe a little of out-of-the-ordinary, that they think people would enjoy, they are welcome to get in touch and if we can organise it, we will.”

It is a perfect illustration of how The Edge is at the heart of its community.

“We are there for local groups, organisations and individuals and it is heartening to see that many are engaging with us,” Peter continues.

“Stagecoach Theatre are holding weekly sessions, Top Hat Stage School in Telford have used us, as have Magic Voices Choir from Telford and the Carmichael School of Dance and Theatre Arts in Telford.

“Shropshire Young Farmers are holding their drama competition here in February and many events in the Wenlock Olympian Games Live Arts Festival, which is held in March, take place here. We are also working with local schools.

“The facilities are for hire and we are very happy to discuss people’s requirements.”

Singer/songwriter Kathryn Williams and musician Withered hand (Dan Wilson) will be in concert in May

The revival in the fortunes of The Edge actually stems from increasing local disquiet at its continued closure during 2022 and into 2023.

“I arrived in May 2023 and I invited local resident, Paul Hanafin, who had got in touch with concerns about the future of The Edge, to a meeting along with Councillor Linda West and Terri Jones of Flicks in the Sticks. Paul and Linda agreed to get involved in running the centre along with Mark Jones, a teacher here at Williams Brookes. IT technician Tom Walters is our cinematographer. Terri is also heavily involved in putting together the cinema evenings.

“We all bring different areas of interest. My passion is music. I think the key to putting together a season of events is in providing variety for people and maybe something a little different.”

A case in point was a Music at the Edge performance by Three Acres And A Cow. Two members of the outfit, Robin Grey and Katherine Hallewell, brought their touring show, billed as A History of Land Rights and Protest in Folk Song and Story to Much Wenlock last November.

Part TED (technology, entertainment and design) talk, part history lecture, part folk club sing-a-long and part storytelling session, the audience were treated to tales that have been shared for generations.

A Music at the Edge event to look forward to this year is on Friday May 3 when accomplished singer/songwriter John Douglas appears in concert.

Guitarist since 1987 with the Scottish indie band the Trashcan Sinatras, renowned for their pop harmonies and wordplay, John Douglas released a new solo album to critical acclaim in late 2023.

Singer songwriter John Douglas will perform in May.

Another date for your diary is a Theatre at the Edge presentation of What Ho, Wodehouse on Thursday August 1. Award-winning actor and writer Jonathan Goodwin performs in a brand-new comedy, adapted from some of the early writings of P.G. Wodehouse, in a production by Don’t Go Into The Cellar! Theatre Company.

Top theatre is a key part of The Edge offering and it can be ‘live’ without necessarily being in the same room.

“We are very keen on National Theatre Live streamings, which are a great way of seeing the finest actors in great plays. It offers all the excitement of a live performance without having to travel to London and pay top prices,” Peter explains. A performance of The National’s Dear England, a fictionalised account by James Graham of the struggles and successes of England’s football teams with Joseph Fiennes as Gareth Southgate, was screened in January.

This will be followed up by a showing of The National’s acclaimed Vanya on Thursday February 22. Andrew Scott plays multiple characters in Simon Stephens’ radical take on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, filmed during a sell-out run.

In The Edge cinema, 2024 has already seen screenings of Allelujah, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Winter’s Bone, My Sailor, My Love; and A Man Called Otto, demonstrating once again there is something for everyone.

Films scheduled for February included Book Club – The Next Chapter (12a), La Fille Sur Le Pont (15), Asteroid City (12a) and, on Monday 26th, Gone To Earth (PG). This last was released in 1950 and famously, of course, filmed on location in Much Wenlock. It features Hollywood star Jennifer Jones in a much-loved adaptation of the 1917 novel by Shropshire author Mary Webb.

The Great Escaper (12a), Exhibition on Screen: Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse (U); The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (12) and She Said (15) are the March offerings.

The Edge’s website has been revamped, enabling people to keep up-to-date with shows and events.

The management team is still relatively new and, of course, all volunteers. In Peter’s case, he has to juggle his role with the main day job at William Brookes School.

“I’ve no real experience of running an arts centre and I’m learning as I go along. But I’m loving it.”

The Edge was purpose-built at the same time as William Brookes School and both opened in 2010, so Peter is always looking at ways to update the 13-year-old facilities with plans, for instance, to replace the sound system in Studio 1.

“We are never going to look to make a profit, with everything we recoup from ticket sales invested in the facilities.

“After this period of closure, this is a gradual reopening and, over time, we are building a programme of cinema, theatre, dance, music, comedy, literature and student productions which we hope will give The Edge a bright future.”

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