‘CLOSE-UP MAGIC’ 40 Years at the Bush Theatre
Edited by Neil Burkey
Introduction Editorâ€™s Note Prologue
6 8 10
Nicholas Newton Jack Shepherd Peter Wilson Stephen Poliakoff Snoo Wilson Dusty Hughes Julie Walters 4
Section 3: Distinction
Section 2: The Burgeoning Bush
Section 1: Salad Days 18 22 26 30 34 40 44
Jenny Topper and Nicky Pallot Kevin Elyot Terry Johnson Doug Lucie John Byrne Simon Callow Robert Holman
48 52 54 58 60 62 64
Dominic Dromgoole Billy Roche Catherine Johnson Richard Cameron Jonathan Harvey Simon Bent
72 76 80 84 86 90
Section 5: Looking Ahead
Section 4: Workinâ€™ at the Firkin Mike Bradwell Philip Jackson Celia Robertson Tim Fountain Adam Rapp Georgia Fitch
96 102 106 108 112 116
Josie Rourke Lucy Osborne Steve Waters Geoffrey Streatfeild Ralf Little
122 132 136 140 142
The Critics Speak
List of Plays List of Subscribers Index Acknowledgements
158 162 164 168
very clearly remember my first meeting at the Bush, mainly because it was my first meeting with anyone in the business of making professional theatre. I’d sent a huge envelope containing three plays (all together a meaty 234 pages) to every theatre in Britain, having decided this was a clever way to show my ‘diversity’ as a playwright. In return, I received a fistful of polite and not-so-polite rejections. It was six to eight months later that Teresa Topolski, longtime reader of the Bush, left a message on my mum and dad’s answerphone saying, ‘Just read your plays. You seem quite interesting. Why don’t you call me back.’ I did, slightly breathlessly, and for the next three months Teresa and I spoke quite regularly about what I was doing. In September of that year, we met in the flesh for the first time, and she took me to meet Mike Bradwell and Nicola Wilson – then respectively Artistic Director and Literary Manager of the Bush. The offices were in a dark, pokey basement, so we went to a cafe. I squirmed in my seat as Mike looked me up and down, smiled and declared ‘I’ve read your plays. There were a lot of words in them. Some good, some bad. You could be a good writer, you could be a bad writer. But you’re interesting and Teresa is good at spotting interesting. Keep in touch.’ That was 2001. They added me to the Writers’ Night list, and I barely missed a show. I sent them play after play after play, which they dutifully read. In 2004 they found one they liked and commissioned further drafts of it, and Nicola patiently and skilfully led me towards something I was much happier with. In May 2005 they staged a reading, with Mike handling the stage directions, substituting the word ‘erection’ for ‘stiffy’, and chuckling loudly each time he did. Then, that December, with the most amazing cast (Sam Barnett, Morven Christie, Daniel Bayle, Lisa McDonald, and Gwyneth Strong), the Bush put on my first professional play. I didn’t become an overnight success, but the press night was, and is, and perhaps always will be, the greatest professional experience of my life. Shaking hands with Jim Broadbent, discussing erections with Roger Lloyd Pack, but more than anything feeling, for the first time in my life, truly part of something. The Bush Theatre is the greatest thing that ever happened to me. And what makes it so special is I’m far from unique in this. The Bush Theatre is the greatest thing that’s happened to quite a lot of people – people of serious accomplishment. Catherine Johnson, Tina Brown, Jonathan Harvey, David Eldridge, Simon Callow, Paul Bettany and Mark O’Rowe are just some of the people given an important push by this theatre. The Bush is the place where Keira Knightley was won (Sharman MacDonald was allowed to get pregnant after she sold her play), Victoria Wood first wrote and Daniel Radcliffe sold raffle tickets. This book is about the special mark the Theatre has left on people. The stories inside – from Nicky Pallot persuading a nice Post Office man in Wexford to drop a note through Billy Roche’s door telling him they wanted to do his play, to the Hull Truck
theatre troop applauding cottagers as they emerged from the Shepherd’s Bush gents public toilets, to Victoria Wood and Julie Walters shouting out of the window at Harold Pinter, to Josie Rourke solving the problem of a broken theatre with a ‘Broken Space’ season, to Geoff Streatfeild receiving blow jobs in a whole number of different lighting states – are all essentially love stories, because the Bush is fundamentally a place which people love. Why do we love it so? Maybe Terry Johnson puts it best when he writes: The reason for this fondness, this unquestioned regard for the place, is quite simply that it represents the pursuit of excellence. It is, of course, not alone in such theatrical ambitions, but there’s something about that crowded, hot, intense little space that makes excellence imperative. By virtue of its concision and focus, it teaches new writers the necessity of both. And by virtue of its limitations, it teaches them the limitless possibilities of their work. Jack Thorne
Patricia Hodge in Tina Brown’s Happy Yellow, 1977.
Section 1: Salad Days
Robin Soans When we did A Bed of Roses in 1978, once we were backstage there was no way back to the dressing room, or, indeed the lavatory. If we needed a pee during the performance it was either a ladder onto the roof and down the drainpipe, or down the backstairs and across the road to the ‘cottage’ on the corner of Shepherd’s Bush Green. I found during the dress rehearsal that I was busting for a piss and opted for the ‘cottage’. The only thing was I playing a vicar and at the time was dressed in full surplice, cassock and dog collar. I entered the brick toilet where forty men in tight jeans were fiddling with or eyeing each others’ willies. On the appearance of a man of the cloth in their midst, there was a mass zipping up of zips and within five seconds I had the entire bank of urinals to myself.
As the 70s moved into the 80s, the Theatre rarely had an empty seat. In fact we shoehorned them in so tightly that on the press night of a show I directed I stepped straight onto a woman’s hand as I was rushing to get out at the interval. (‘You bastard!’ she screamed as the masked ranks of the London critics turned to stare accusingly at me.) So things had changed. We started taking shows on tour. Tommy and P.J. bought a racehorse and Mary’s fur coats got grander. We didn’t watch her counting the cash any more because we were too busy counting our own and making sure it added up for the Arts Council and was enough to pay Equity wages. Mysteriously the brewers Ind Coope seemed disappointed with the bar takings. ‘You’re packing them in but your audiences don’t drink much, do they?’ one area manager informed us at one of our regular meetings. This didn’t quite square with what we knew and could see with our own eyes. The audiences came early, drank during the show, and mixed with the actors afterwards. Curiouser and curiouser.
Section 1: Salad Days
I left running the Bush but remained on the Board and started to write full time. One day the Conways were out of there faster than Tommy could marmalize a drunk, and not of their own free will. They’d saved enough money to buy a small pub in Paddington. The farewells were genuine and warm but it was the end of an era and every Bush director who has had to share the building with O’Neill’s and Walkabout will confirm it. So it really is time to move, and bon voyage!
Alan Rickman and George Irving in Commitments, 1980.
Julie Walters Section 1: Salad Days
t is 32 years since I worked at the Bush Theatre, so my memories are somewhat sporadic. The show was to be called In at the Death, and some might say that the audience were exactly that on some nights. It was a series of playlets (we were instructed not to call them sketches) written by such luminaries as Snoo Wilson, Ken Campbell, Nigel Baldwin, Ron Hutchinson, Nigel Williams, Dusty Hughes (the latter also being our director) and a young woman I’d never heard of before, called Victoria Wood. In the cast were Alison Fiske, Godfrey Jackman, Phil Jackson, Clive Merrison, Victoria and myself. I think it was summertime because I have a very vivid recollection of spending lunchtimes during the rehearsal period hanging out of the window above the entrance to the theatre with my new pal Victoria (we had bonded instantly) and watching the world pass by beneath us in the street below. On one of these occasions we spotted Harold Pinter standing at the bus stop. On a bubble of excitement I screeched down, ‘Hey Harold, hello! Hello there! … You write plays don’t you?’ He looked up blankly, ‘Pardon? … What?’ ‘You’re a writer, we could do with one of those up here!’ after which he promptly turned his back. My cheeks are burning as I remember it. Then a week or so into the run we thought it a hoot to write ‘H. Pinter, 2 seats’ on the booking list and laughed our heads off backstage as we watched a very nervous cast crank their performances up a notch or two to impress the eminent playwright, who never, of course, turned up. And talking of backstage, never before or since has there been a backstage like backstage at the Bush. It was simply a small landing, directly behind the stage, I guess about six foot square, and from it a flight of stone steps, also doubling as the fire escape, lead down to a pair of doors that opened out onto the street. Once the audience were
in, this small and precarious space also became the dressing room for the entire cast. There were no toilet facilities and so we took to rushing down the fire escape, out into the street and back in to use the pub toilets. For an interval wee, this had to be done sharpish if you didn’t want to be caught queuing with the punters. At an early preview, sitting breathless on the lav after a lightning interval dash, Victoria and I heard a rather upper-middle-class voice intone, ‘Oh dear! Could do better. Shall we bother with the second half?” After that, it was perfecting our aim into pint glasses and frequent cries of, “Don’t drink that!!’ as thirsty actors reached for what they thought was a pint of lager in the backstage gloom. The little space became even more hazardous once the show had started, because it was then pitch black apart from a sharp sliver of light that bled through a crack in the scenery. On one particular night we were all on stage – apart, that is, from Victoria, who was to make her appearance in the last few minutes leading up to the interval. Just prior to her entrance, we heard an enormous crash and what sounded like the soft, repeated thud of flesh on stone. When we finally exited, we found Victoria, who of course never managed to get on stage, sprawled halfway down the staircase and covered with blood. She had slipped in the darkness whilst hovering over a pint glass and cut her hand and in doing so had knocked over a number of other glasses, splattering their contents all over the costumes, and needless to say they didn’t all contain drinks. What the second half audience must have thought of the badly stained costumes one can only guess at, and as for the smell as they dried under the heat of the stage lights in the wonderful intimacy of the Bush auditorium … Early Odorama? Oh Mr Pinter … how you missed out!
Left to right: Philip Jackson, Victoria Wood, Alison Fiske, Julie Walters and Godfrey Jackman. In at the Death, 1978.
t o ll a P y k ic N + r e p p o T y n n Je 8 Joint Artistic Director 1977–8
Joint Artistic Director 1979–9
Section 2: The Burgeoning Bush
Jenny Topper t’s nearly one in the morning, and the wonderful cast of Doug Lucie’s Progress have long cleared the Green Room of their possessions. That room has been restored to some sort of order, while in the theatre yet another set has been dismantled: the mindless but satisfying task of stripping every piece of reusable wood of screws and nails has been completed, the pieces of furniture used for the set are stacked up on the vertiginous seating, waiting to be returned Sunday or Monday. (When I too return to my ﬂat on that Sunday or Monday, those same pieces of furniture, now back in their home, will give me an acute sense of dislocation that won’t disappear for days to come.) So, a pause while the first of many pots of tea is made and everyone re-focuses on the work ahead. Time to slip down to the loo, and to try to slip past the saloon bar (or ‘nobs bar’ as the Conway family who run the pub with superb skill and charm would have it) where, as happens every Saturday night, a lock-in has been under way since the final ‘thank you gents’ was uttered. But no luck – I’ve been spotted and cajoled into joining Tommy, his serene wife, Mary, and their racing buddies seated nonchalantly at the bar. And, before you can even say ‘thanks but no thanks’, at least two glasses of red wine are lined up in front of me and ... well, the pause lasts half an hour but no matter for, being young, the wine only serves to enthuse me for the tasks ahead. So, back up I go, to join Simon and Dusty (later Nicky), Bash (Literary Manager), the stage manager and the production manager (Buzz, later Rik Carmichael then after him Bart Cossee – always such saintly, clever production managers were we blessed with) to work through the night to realize the inspired, memorable sets for which we had become renowned (doing without sofas, chairs and tables for six to eight weeks at a time, a small price to pay for that renown). So, fit-up after fit-up, I acquire – skills is perhaps putting a gloss on it, but tasks, anyway, that I had never had occasion or inclination to learn before: tiling walls, tiling ﬂoors, a bit of plumbing, wallpaper hanging, hanging doors, carving a Scottish coastline out of MDF (with scars on my wrists from two operations to prove it) and, years later – when the exquisite taste of Gordon Stewart and Andrew Wood, scenic painters extraordinaire, were brought to bear upon our sets – the art of mixing paint. I even learn to abandon the five-inch heels I had insisted on wearing during my first ever night-long fit-up! And fit-up after fit-up, we watch as the sun rises over Shepherd’s Bush Green, sometimes waving to a pal in the business as they disappear into the infamous ‘cottage’ on the corner of the Green, drink far too much coffee and, however dog-tired come Monday morning, never, ever questioning these apparently wasted weekends because we cared: about our reputation, about working as a team, about giving the lie to this word ‘fringe’,
Previous pages: The Last Elephant, by Stephen Davis, 1981.
Section 2: The Burgeoning Bush
Jenny Topper + Nicky Pallot
Pre-rehearsals for Still Crazy After All These Years, 1981. Left to right: Jonathan Kydd, Jenny Topper, Mike Bradwell, Nicky Pallot, Roger Davidson, Thirzie Robinson, Helen Cooper, Geoff Rose and Barry Nettleton.
about giving unconditional support, however straitened our circumstances, to each and every artist who came to work at the Bush Theatre. And if anyone had asked us what on earth we were doing we would have given them an even more simple answer: we were creating magic out of apparently thin air. There were many advantages for the Bush Theatre in being run for some 18 years of its life as a directorial triumvirate (for which term, until a degree of specialization eventually crept in, read jacks of all trades). Not least, there was no choice but to acquire nuts-and-bolts skills and experience in areas that might not otherwise have come your way: the hoovering of stairs, bi-weekly stints at the box office, ushering and labouring on fit-ups being perhaps the more obviously lowly. But learning the hard way about budgets and writing copy for the Theatreâ€™s publicity (with design for many, many years by the exotic but gentle Oscar Zarate), along with the programming, casting, reading and developing of plays were all tasks shared amongst us, and this sharing of tasks meant that the programme could be and was extraordinarily eclectic. Even if a play was chosen by one director, we were so in tune with each other that there would be, if not instant empathy (though mostly there was), then an absolute closing of the ranks, giving us the outward toughness essential for anyone running a new-play theatre above a pub. Let me emphasize that this was not dull and safe art by committee, but a dialogue amongst passionate practitioners, and if this sometimes led to tears and tantrums, it also meant that we shared in the acclamation, and the failures rested on all our shoulders . And then there were the absolute precious moments when, through a happy conjoining of taste, we all found ourselves raving about a play by a hitherto unknown
Jenny Topper + Nicky Pallot
Simon Callow Section 2: The Burgeoning Bush
ne afternoon, I dropped by at the Bush and handed Jenny Topper, Simon Stokes and Nicky Pallot Kiss of the Spider Woman; it took as long it took to read for them to decide to do it immediately. That’s how it was in those bygone days; and they could tell a masterpiece when they saw one. Mark Rylance and I played out the story of the improbable and tender romance that blossoms between Molina, the camp little queen, and Valentin, the determined heterosexual revolutionary hero incarcerated in the same cell. Despite indifferent or non-existent notices (it was mostly ignored by the broadsheets) it played to bursting houses; Robert De Niro sent his uniformed chauffeur to queue all day for returns, but none showed up. There was talk at the time of transferring to another theatre, but much as I loved the piece, I was glad it never happened. The experience that Mark and I and the few hundred people who saw the show had that sultry summer was unique, and uniquely right – pure Bush. There’s nothing quite like it.
Drs Jane D. and Jack M. Hochman
Our historical relationship with the Bush Theatre does not go back 40 years, but it does reach back to the summer of 1985. My husband and I are Americans; but in July 1985 we were transferred to London, where we lived not far from Shepherd’s Bush, on Holland Park Avenue. We were there for only a year when we were transferred back to the USA. However, a couple of years later, we purchased a flat at Notting Hill Gate in which we now live alternately with our home in New Jersey. During the first week in London, we (who are serious theatre people) read in Time Out about your production of Kiss of the Spiderwoman. Intrigued, we telephoned for tickets and learned that we had to become members to purchase tickets. So we did. I think I still have that yellow membership card. I think the tickets cost about three pounds each. We climbed the stairs to the theatre … and there began our love affair with the Bush. We sat in the second tier of bench seats, and once the play started, we both forgot that there was any reality other than that of the play unfolding before us. We were riveted. I imagined myself a fly on the wall of that prison cell, my own reality suspended. We were both particularly so taken with Simon Callow’s performance! We did not know then that he already had a reputation in the theatre; and, indeed, we thought that WE had discovered an amazing talent! Neither of us will ever forget that performance; we have been back to the Bush countless times since and look forward, now, to the next time.
Section 2: The Burgeoning Bush
Marie Pearlman I remember very clearly an incident in 1985 when I came to see Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig. During the first half of the play, Simon Callow has a row with his lover and smashes a cup onto the floor. Unfortunately on this occasion Simon, who was barefoot, trod on one of the pieces of broken china. He did not miss a beat and continued the performance as if nothing had happened. We watched mesmerized as he moved around the stage leaving an increasingly heavy trail of blood behind him. After the interval we noticed his foot had been cleaned up and there was a neat plaster covering the offending cut. A true professional!
Simon Callow in Manuel Puigâ€™s Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1985.
Section 3: Distinction
Section 3: Distinction
Section 3 Distinction
Section 3: Distinction
I’d been an avid mainstream theatre visitor throughout my youth, but after moving to London in the early 90s I decided to fill in the gaps in my theatregoing by attending all the major fringe venues. I started with the Bush and booked randomly for whatever happened to be playing there on the night I was free. I didn’t even read the blurb on the Beautiful Thing leaflet, I just looked at the image of Truman Capote jumping for joy on the poster, paid my money and climbed the stairs. What followed was one of the most unexpectedly uplifting, funny, deeply moving theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. Breaking the mould once and for all on ‘gay’ plays being worthy/doom-laden/freakish, here was a refreshingly spiky, entirely credible coming-out story with just a hint of camp magic, performed to perfection (by an original cast that included a young Jonny Lee Miller) in Hettie Macdonald’s production. As I bounced out of the theatre (this was in the days before online ticketing, so I couldn’t go home and book again immediately) I heard a very conservative-looking old lady say to her companion ‘Wasn’t that lovely?!’ Yes it was! I saw BT twice more at the Bush (tickets became like gold dust) then several more times during its (inevitable) West End transfer. Since then I have seen more than 30 plays at the Bush, from the harrowing in-yer-face excitement of Trainspotting and Killer Joe through the surreal magic of Sabina and Crooked to the utter delight of Elling, I Like Mine With A Kiss and Jonathan Harvey’s subsequent Boom Bang-A-Bang, and I am always struck by the quality of the work on display, and the sheer wonder of being at close quarters to a theatre of this calibre. But that first, magical visit was indeed, like the Bush Theatre itself, a beautiful thing. Killer Joe, 1995.
Sophie Stanton and Mark Letheren, Beautiful Thing.
Darren Lee Cole In 1995 I had the pleasure of being a producer at the Bush with Tracy Lettsâ€™ Killer Joe. The show was a fantastic success culminating in a move to the West End. I fondly remember Dominic Dromgoole and the care he took in receiving the company and nurturing the work. He also was immensely generous in introducing me to Mr Michael Codron and putting together the transfer. The Bush introduced me to people and companies that I continue to work with today. In fact, the pub theatre environment served as a central inspiration to the remodelling of my current theatre, the SoHo Playhouse in New York City. I still make sure to catch a show at the Bush whenever I am in London. I will always be grateful for the doors that fantastic little theatre opened up for me.
Simon Bent Section 3: Distinction
Before: Neil Stuke and Danny Webb, Goldhawk Road, 1996 ...
y association with the Bush began in the early 1990s with a coproduction of a play of mine called Bad Company. Dominic Dromgoole was the artistic director, with Nick Drake as his literary manager and Deborah Aydon as the general manager. They worked and seemingly lived together in a basement under a launderette on the Shepherd’s Bush Road, a tunnelled vault that reminded me not so much of an office as an Anderson air raid shelter, though not as big. Dominic, shoes off, feet up, flicking through lists of actors, on the phone, whilst asking you what’s the best thing you’ve ever seen in the theatre, with occasional interjections from Deborah and Nick, who were likewise involved in telephone conversations and doing business of their own – all engaged in an ongoing and continual dialogue with each other. Also in this cellar: the marketing manager, the publicity manager, the box office manager, the assistant director and a giant photocopier. This was the nerve centre of the Bush. Halfway up the stairs to the left on your way out a cupboard with a sofa in it, a couple of wooden chairs, shelves stacked with play scripts, a window out onto an overgrown garden, some light and a backdoor. The archive and audition room. When an actor arrived, if they chose to sit on the sofa it was best to steer them clear of the side on which the spring was sticking out. Up the road and to the left was the theatre, a room above a scruffy pub on the corner of Shepherd’s Bush Green and Goldhawk Road. An empty desolate bar, with a few committed drinkers, at the other end on the left, just before a recess with a fireplace, a ticket booth, behind which stairs lead up to the theatre. A narrow staircase, up past a door on the left, leading to a communal dressing room, lots of mirrors, clothes rack, basin, toilet, shower and bay window looking onto the green. On up into the theatre through a heavy metal door, along a small vomitorium and out onto a surprisingly large stage which you have to cross in order to get to your seat. The stage is wide and narrow, approximately 24 x 12ft, with seating on two sides, steeply raked, in an L shape, no more than a series of deep steps covered in large black velvet cushions. There are only three possibilities for entrances and exits, two along the long back wall and the vom you have just entered through; if you
Section 3: Distinction
… to hold as t’were the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
want an actor to exit through one of the back wall exits then enter through the vom, they have to go down the fire escape out into the street below and back up through the pub. Within these limitations the possibilities were endless. I don’t think there is anything that hasn’t been done on that stage, except possibly an upside-down production. I remember Paul Miller telling a nervous actor not to worry about the closeness of the audience, to hold his nerve until the lights go up, then, ‘When you see the whites of their eyes start acting, it’s the only defence you’ve got. Take no prisoners and don’t stop till you get to the other end.’ Under Dominic’s watch there undoubtedly was a sea change. After a decade of being on the margins, new plays suddenly became fashionable and the Bush was at the centre, most notably with Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing and Billy Roche’s Wexford Trilogy. It was a genuinely exciting theatre to go to, you never knew what you were going to get next, from an impressionistic coming-of-age play about a group of working class 20-somethings, to an intense historical drama about the persecution of women in 17th-century Ireland, and then back again to a claustrophobic urban landscape and the life of heroin addicts. On the other hand, you knew what you weren’t going to get. You weren’t going to get a lecture on the state of the nation, or a sermon about the moral welfare of the country. This didn’t mean that the plays weren’t political, lacked ideas or had no spiritual values, on the contrary, but they wore them casually on their sleeves – at core it was theatre about people. There was an attempt I think to put on stage a portrayal of ‘Life itself’, but this wasn’t a trawl through the misery of others seeking vicarious thrills, or a forensic examination of how the poor live, it was a celebration of life from all walks, past and present, in all its brilliant murky glory. The plays were profoundly political with a human ‘p’. And a lot of laughter. Dominic is a maverick, a showman, with entrepreneurial flare, a belief in the transformative power of theatre, and he injected the Bush with a shot of vitality in much the same way as Stephen Daldry was to do later at the Royal Court. I have been lucky enough to have had plays on at the Bush under the last three artistic directors: Dominic, Mike and Josie. All very different, each with their own style, but united in the ambition to reflect the world back at its self, or as Hamlet says to the players:
After: ... (with Suzanne Hitchmough and John Simm on the couch.)
Section 4: Workin’ at the Firkin
Sunetra Sarker in a scene from Richard Bean’s The God Botherers, 2003.
Bush productions did not play to sufficient numbers and therefore did not represent value for money for the stakeholders. Josie’s research uncovered the fact that the Arts Council had underestimated the audience figures by two thirds. In fact over 100,000 stakeholders had seen Bush productions that year. I believe that the Arts Council purposely miscalculated the figures to justify cutting the Bush. Millions had been spent on rebuilding and refurbishing the Royal Court, Hampstead and Soho theatres and providing the increased revenue to run them. Something had to go to pay for it all, and some tosspot at the Arts Council had deemed
Section 4: Workin’ at the Firkin
that the Bush was surplus to requirements. They had not reckoned with the reaction of the public and the theatre community. Josie orchestrated a ‘Save the Bush’ campaign that resulted in national media coverage and support from the great and the good. Letters of complaint appeared in the press signed by 200 leading practitioners, and questions were asked in the House of Commons. For the Arts Council, who had just announced that we were living in a new golden age of artistic endeavour and excellence, the whole affair was a massive own goal. The campaign culminated in an open meeting organized by Equity at the Young Vic during which Arts Council Chief Executive Peter Hewitt was accused of arrogance, incompetence, high-handed behaviour and Stalinism. Nick Hytner (who had not attended the meeting) said that Hewitt was talking bollocks, and Miriam Karlin called for a vote of no confidence that was carried nem con. Sir Christopher Frayling snottily dismissed the protest and later claimed that Mike Leigh had called him a shit in a lift at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. Eventually the Bush had their funding restored. The Bush has now been granted the lease on the old Shepherd’s Bush Library and plans to move in in 2011. Here the Theatre will continue to discover and nurture the best new theatre writers from the widest possible range of backgrounds and produce their work to the highest possible standards for the widest possible audience, as it has done for the last 40 years. Real theatre is difficult, provocative, sexy, beautiful and dangerous. It encompasses the humanity of Chekhov and the corruptive power of rock ‘n’ roll. A real playhouse is an emporium of magic, of strange and forbidden delights – ‘an illconducted place of recreation where imaginations are inﬂamed to a degree of madness’ populated by mop-squeezers and fart-catchers, moochers and mandrakes, pinchcocks and dollymops and redribboned mollies. Theatre is not a luxury. It is as important to society as a school, a university, a hospital, a library, Prince Andrew or a submarine. And the Bush is the most important of them all. Patrons are advised to book early to avoid disappointment.
Section 4: Workin’ at the Firkin Top: Karl Shiels (foreground) and Aidan Kelly, Howie the Rookie, 2000, by Mark O’Rowe.
were paid less than £5 a script, and yet somehow it worked. Over the next four years we managed to find and produce over 30 terrific new plays, set everywhere from Butlins Minehead to a gay brothel in Earls Court. Plays by writers as diverse as Joe Penhall, Doug Lucie, Enda Walsh, Catherine Johnson, Kaite O’Reilly and Adam Rapp. Plays which won awards and which went on to be seen in the West End, around Europe and across America. But of course it’s not just the plays that make a theatre – it’s the people and the stories, the magical nights which are now part of the Bush Legend: the press night when a pregnant woman projectile vomited down the critic Sheridan Morley’s back and he still didn’t wake up. The press night I struggled in vain to keep a tired and emotional Mike Bradwell away from the artistic director of the Royal Theatre Northampton, after he’d overheard him say of Catherine Johnson’s Shang-ALang, ‘I suppose this is what passes for art in London.’ (This from a man who’d given the good people of Northampton Sleuth eight times in five years.) And then of course there were the nights when everything came together, when all the ducks were firmly in a row. The nights when you knew you’d seen something truly special in that magical jewel box of a space and you could say ‘I was there,’ and know there was nowhere on earth you’d rather have been. Now the Bush is about to embark on a new chapter in the old library. But before it opens the doors to its new venue I have a plea to make. During my years as literary manager I was a regular user of the old library’s facilities, particularly during my lunch hour. I developed a real fondness for them and made many friends. Could I ask the architects to consider preserving at least this original feature? If stick comes to lift I’ll even sponsor the cubicle, just so long as I can have my name on the seat (and it doesn’t cost more than 30 quid). Call it my contribution to the Big Society. After all, theatre is all about bums on toilet seats, isn’t it?
Section 4: Workin’ at the Firkin
Robert Wolstenholme I was in the audience of Simon Bent’s play Sugar Sugar the night a gent in the back row started making very odd noises. Sue Johnston and Jonny Phillips, who were on stage at the time, started casting nervous glances into the audience as the man’s groans grew louder and more frequent. Suddenly, punters parted like the Red Sea as the man projectile vomited down the seats. Luckily, we were in the scene before the interval, so stage management ushered everyone out, cleaned the place up and we started the second half with that scene again. It sounds trite, but there was an odd bond between the actors and the audience after that – the actors were fizzing, seemingly trying to give the punters something extra in return for their ‘ordeal’ and in return, the crowd were rapt and enthusiastic. Would this have happened in any other space? But best of all, Sheridan Morley was in the audience to review the show, having missed press night. He didn’t stay for the second half, but the title of his piece the next day? Chunderwonder.
Sue Johnston (left) and Deborah McAndrew in Simon Bent’s Sugar Sugar, 1998.
Section 4: Workin’ at the Firkin
honest direction got extraordinary performances out of two actors he’d never even met before the first day of rehearsal. I had a two-year playwriting fellowship at Juilliard, but no formal training in directing, so being in a rehearsal room with Mike was for me a master class in how plays should be made. It’s an aesthetic that trusts simplicity, a writer’s text, intense feeling, patience, precise behavior, and an audience’s intelligence. It’s what made the Bush Theatre one of the most exciting new writing theatres in the world during his tenure there. Four years ago, I took my play Finer Noble Gases to the 2006 Edinburgh Festival. I directed it (I hadn’t directed the two earlier productions, which I’d had very mixed feelings about), and Paul Sparks played the lead. We received a Fringe First Award and Paul was named Best Actor of the Fringe. I was extremely proud that Mike was there to see it. And he liked it enough to invite us to perform it at the Bush for a week following the festival. For Paul and me, despite being as American as you can get (Paul’s from Oklahoma, I’m from Illinois), it was a kind of homecoming for us. Returning to the Bush for those five performances was one of the proudest moments of my career. For me, the Bush will always be synonymous with Mike Bradwell and I am grateful for the theatre and the man. Mark Douet contact sheets featuring Aidan Meech and Miriam Karlin in Mrs Steinberg and the Byker Boy, 2000, written by Michael Wilcox.
Section 4: Workin’ at the Firkin
I worked at the Bush theatre in 2000 as an actor in a cheeky and charming play, Mrs Steinberg and the Byker Boy, by Michael Wilcox. It was an actor’s dream: It was the first professional play I was in and I was so, so, so lucky as I left drama school early in my last year to do it and was so excited and terrified – not just because of the exposing space, but because I was going to have to spend seven shows a week snogging the heartthrob Paul Nicholls, in my pants. Like most young drama school graduates I was naively convinced I was destined to be the next John Gielgud, and I was out of depth (to say the least) when pictures of me eating the face off a former soap star were plastered all over the newspapers and we boldly adorned a full page spread in Heat magazine. I was mortified and delighted in equal measure. There were queues around the block for seats and I loved every minute – from the rehearsals in a nearby church (where there was a murder on the steps during our first week of rehearsals and we were informed about it by a policeman walking into a scene involving a lot of ‘heavy petting’) to the performances, where there were regular outbursts of homophobic shock and ‘disgust’ at the bravely intimate scenes, still quite rare in those days, of two young geordie boys falling in love in a charity shop. I remember the theatre, and indeed the play I was in, to be a tender and protective place. The tiny stage just breathed it effortlessly into life: you had to be spontaneous, brave, instinctive – all the stuff drama schools tell young actors and which I nodded at yet struggled with in acting classes, but only really absorbed properly because of my first job at the Bush. The audience was crammed in to the seats, sweltering in one of the hottest summers, and we really had a sense that we owed the audience the best that we could give them. The intimacy of the space just took us to places where we could do this, exposing everything – the closest to a film a play can be, perhaps. We had to trust and fight against the intimacy at the same time, wear it, almost. The close proximity of the audience to the stage (we were practically cavorting on their laps) made the actors and the audience listen, be still, find truth. It felt like everyone, the actors and the audience were cocooned and protected, able to whisper secrets and lies, laugh and cry but also teeter on some kind of exposed and dangerous knife edge. The space was a real paradox, a gift, and I have such powerful memories of the challenges and warmth of the whole building.
Lucy Osborne Section 5: Looking Ahead
Lucy Osborneâ€™s set design for The Whisky Taster.
he Bush is not a beautiful space. The ceiling is too low, the doorways too small and the walls are neither straight nor at right angles to each other. Across one whole wall runs a large and noisy air-conditioning unit which is impossible to remove or disguise. Despite the most vigorous cleaning regime, it is relentlessly dusty. In winter it is perishingly cold and in the summer the only way to cool the space is to open all of the doors onto the roof, and endure the smell of burnt oil from the deep fat fryers in the pub kitchen below. The Bush is an awkward, unyielding and unforgiving space. A combination of features that in any other theatre might be considered quirky and charming make designing plays in the Bush a huge challenge where it sometimes feels like you are fighting every crumbling piece of plaster and inconveniently positioned beam.
Section 5: Looking Ahead
But I absolutely adore this small, cantankerous room. Every physical constraint that it places on you as a designer forces you to interrogate what you are trying to achieve. It demands that you scrutinize every decision and encourages you to be ambitious and brave. Just the process of working out how to fit 81 audience members and a company of actors into the tiny space can feel like an insurmountable task, but it can also be an enormously liberating process. The audience are so close that you can be very simple in your visual vocabulary; something as pure as rain running down a window, or as honest as a beam of torchlight can become extraordinary and magical.
Kate Oâ€™Flynn and Samuel Barnett in James Grahamâ€™s The Whisky Taster, 2010.
Ralf Little Section 5: Looking Ahead
n my experience the Bush Theatre is an institution that appears to thrive despite, or perhaps because of, the unrelenting adversity it is forced to endure. No funding? Lead the charge on the Arts Council. No lighting grid? Do a season of shows in the dark. One of your actors is stuck in traffic on the M1 and you have to go up half an hour late? Issue a good-natured apology to the audience and soundly kick the actor’s arse. Every one of these major (and not quite so major) setbacks would indicate from a distance that the Bush Theatre’s days are numbered, and yet it seems to have acquired the knack of turning layer upon layer of bad luck and unfortunate mishap into a series of extraordinary successes. The greatest trick of all is that it has appeared to be all rather effortless, but has in fact taken an incredible amount of originality, dogged self-belief, a healthy amount of stoicism, and a huge dose of good, old-fashioned hard work. And that is as good a way to sum the place up as any. Behind the scenes, people work tirelessly to keep the wheels turning, while on stage, the Bush remains as uncompromising in its choices as ever. A bastion of theatrical bravery in a tiny corner of W12, it champions original thought, new writing, and innovative design and creativity. It juggles a perfectly judged blend of experience and fresh-faced enthusiasm in its choices of directors, writers and actors – and allows us thesps the freedom to make the kind of creative choices we wouldn’t necessarily be able to make elsewhere. Against all the physical evidence, the Bush seems to refuse to accept that it is a small theatre. It certainly won’t acknowledge any limitation in the scope of work that is staged there, somewhat typically taking the attitude that ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’. And somehow, there always is. It’s as though the fact that there are fewer than 100 seats is a sort of irritating inconvenience, rather than a more realistic acceptance that it may be a logistical barrier to theatrical expression. And of course, this is what defines it as a space, both in which to work, and to watch. To be on stage at the Bush is to know that every member of the audience can see every
Ian Hart I once said ‘I hate theatre,’ a stupid statement on its own but in a certain context I think still it has merit. I don’t in any context hate the Bush. I love the Bush: a great space for the lazy actor – never too far to walk across the stage; a great place for the lonely actor – everyone in the same dressing room; and a fantastic opportunity for the physical actor – the fire escape that joins the two. My time there was brief – a blessing for all involved, and it was the best experience I ever had in a theatrical setting.
Section 5: Looking Ahead
Ralf Little (prostrate) and Mackenzie Crook in Annie Bakerâ€™s The Aliens, 2010.