Festivals and theatre
Norfolk has a strong arts scene, particularly in Norwich. Whether you’re after comedy, the latest thought-provoking play, or a rock gig complete with mosh pit, you won’t be disappointed.
The Norfolk & Norwich Festival takes over the county for two weeks of the year in May and holds the title as one of the oldest city festivals in England. The majority of the action happens in Norwich but you’ll find events on throughout Norfolk. Music is a huge part of this festival but you will also find plays and other interesting performances on offer. Check the listings to get a feel for what’s on as it varies year-on-year. The programme for the festival is innovative, inspirational and guaranteed to inspire.
The Festival has a fantastic reputation across the East of England and plays a huge part in the cultural development of the county. Its history can be traced back to 1772, where it started out as a concert to raise funds for the Norfolk & Norwich hospital.
In Norwich you’ll find a number of music venues and theatres. For the big shows, head to the Theatre Royal where you can see visiting comedians, the latest musicals, Shakespeare and, of course, pantomime. The Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society also puts on shows at the Theatre Royal and is one of the leading amateur musical theatre companies in the region. The company has put on performances of well-known shows such as West Side Story, Sister Act, Sunset Boulevard and Sweeney Todd.
Steeped in history and offering performances from The Norwich Players and visiting groups, The Maddermarket Theatre has 12 in-house plays staged each year with other companies and artists filling the programme with classical, opera and contemporary music, stand-up comedy, cabaret and talks. The theatre also offers classes and workshops for anyone who is looking to get involved in the arts, be it on stage or behind the scenes.
For something a little different, treat yourself to an evening at the Puppet Theatre. This is one of only three building-based puppet theatres in England and is home to a family of puppets collected over more than 30 years. All the family-friendly shows are produced in-house and go on to tour the country. The theatre is keen to share this special art form and runs regular workshops so you can get up close with the puppets and learn about their history.
Live performance venues
The Norwich Playhouse is known as one of the top comedy venues in Norwich but there’s also an extensive events programme featuring shows from drama companies, musicians, kids’ entertainers and more. Generally, The Playhouse is where you’ll find something a little different in a relaxed and intimate environment. The colourful bar and large outdoor seating area have recently been refurbished offering a cosy spot for a drink, just in case you fancy getting there a little early or staying late.
Most people in Norwich will know of the Arts Centre on St Benedict’s Street as a music venue but the programme of events is much more varied, with a range of live bands, theatre performances, dance groups and spoken word events on offer, too. Over the years it’s picked up a range of awards including Britain’s Best Small Venue. If you want a change from the mainstream lights of the city, experience the cosy feel of Sheringham’s Little Theatre.The North Norfolk venue has year round events including film, art, dance, drama, music and comedy.
During the summer keep an eye on Westacre Theatre, which boasts an 80-seat auditorium and rehearsal and exhibition spaces in the West Norfolk countryside, just 10 miles from King’s Lynn. It also puts on workshops and activities for both adults and children. A place to see great open air plays and shows is Holkham Hall. Its programme of events runs throughout the summer but keep watch out for special performances around Christmas.
Cromer’s beautiful pier is home to the Pavilion Theatre, which is now the only theatre to produce an in-house end-of-pier show. The Cromer Pier Show is one of the few true variety shows left in Britain. There’s a summer show that’s full of great pop music, ballads straight from the West End, performances from comedians and a number of speciality acts as well. If you’re around during the festive season, the pier’s Christmas show is bound to fill you with seasonal cheer. As well as the two shows produced in-house, there’s also an wider programme of visiting musicians, bands and musicals.
Astounding art collections
Another pier famous for a different kind of entertainment is the Britannia Pier in Great Yarmouth. This is where you’ll find comedy giants visiting to put on a wide range of shows. You can easily make a day of your trip to the pier, too, as there are rides, bars and food stalls along its length. At Thursford, between Fakenham and Holt, the Thursford Collection offers a unique family day out. Take a look at the world’s biggest selection of steam engines and organs, or enjoy the family fun at their spectacular Christmas events.
Norfolk is dotted with amateur dramatics groups so you’ll never be stuck for something to see. Keep an eye out for roadside signs as well as local events listings announcing performances all over the county. If you want to get your cultural fix from music that will give you goosebumps, look out for a performance from the Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a huge part of the city’s musical heart and performs a wide repertoire of large-scale works throughout the year.
If art is more your style, there are a wealth of places to view the work of artists local, national and international with the best starting point being the Castle Museum. While the Castle shows off Norwich’s rich history, it’s also home to a wide range of art from different eras and genres. There are also visiting exhibitions, which mean that even if you are lucky enough to have been before, there will still be something new to see on a second visit. The galleries in the museum are very varied and the collections have been recognised as being of outstanding national importance by the Arts Council of East Anglia.
The galleries of contemporary and fine art feature artist such as John Crome, John Sell Cotman, Thomas Gainsborough and William Hogarth. The exhibition galleries feature visiting artists and have displayed the likes of Picasso, Manet, Constable and Jeff Koons over the years. Head towards the University of East Anglia and you’ll find the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, which houses the extraordinary art collection of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury alongside many other collections from donors, and special pieces sourced by the university. The centre is open to the public and has made its name as an important venue for the study and presentation of art.Some may recognise the striking building as the SHIELD headquarters in Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron movie.
Norwich: England’s first City of Literature
Norwich is also home to the Norwich University of the Arts and the East Gallery, which shows off the exceptional work of its students. The exhibitions vary but you can find a variety of disciplines on show including textiles, sculpture and modern art. Every year Norfolk also hosts a special art event in May and June. The Norfolk and Norwich Open Studios is a great way to see and buy art as well as meet the artists who have taken the time to create it. There are also art trails around the county and demonstrations which give you an insight into the creative process.
If it’s the Norfolk landscape you’re eager to explore in art form, visit Pinkfoot Gallery in Cley. You’ll find a stunning collection of British nature paintings here and there’s a large part of the gallery dedicated to sculpture, too, including bronze work and woodcarvings. In 2012, Norwich became England’s first UNESCO City of Literature, one of only 28 in the world. If you love the written word, there’s plenty to keep you entertained from the Millennium Library in the Forum through to the day-long workshops and talks that happen as part of the programme of events put on by the Norwich Writers’ Centre.
There are plenty of world-famous writers associated with the city including William Taylor, Julian of Norwich, John Skelton, Anna Sewell and Arnold Wesker. Keep an eye out for the literary events taking place at the Jarrold department store’s book section and at The Book Hive on London Street. The University of East Anglia also holds a Spring and Autumn Literary Festival that’s worth visiting if you want to discover new writers and learn a bit more about Norwich’s literary history.
For something a little more lively, pay the Hippodrome Circus in Great Yarmouth a visit. You’ll be treated to a fun show that’ll please the whole family. The circus changes throughout the year so depending on when you visit you may see the water show, Christmas spectacular or a traditional circus. All of them will have you marvelling at the skill of the performers and the incredible variety of entertainment in such a unique space.
A more recent addition to Norfolk’s arts scene is open air-film screenings. These happen all over the county throughout the summer so check local listings at places such as Earlham Park, Blicking Hall and Catton Park.
Everything you need to know about Norfolk
Where to eat in Norfolk
The best things to do in Norfolk
The best shopping in Norfolk
The best nightlife in Norfolk