Small Space, Big Impact: The Bush Turns 30Date: 18 March 2002
London's tiny but influential Bush Theatre turns 30 next month, and its artistic director, Mike Bradwell, is currently directing his 30th Bush production, as part of the theatre's anniversary season of new work. Mark Shenton celebrates both milestones.
No smaller theatre in London has ever made a bigger impact than The Bush. In April, this little 100-seat dynamo will mark the 30th anniversary of its opening above a pub on the southwest corner of Shepherd's Bush Green in west London.
The space it occupies used to be an upstairs dining room, and it subsequently served as Lionel Blair's dance studio. Now it provides not only one of the most unique theatregoing experiences available in the capital, but also possesses one of the most central roles in the commissioning, developing and producing of its avowed and exclusive speciality, namely new plays, of any theatre in London.
While the Royal Court, Hampstead and Soho Theatre also specialise in this area, each of them has recently or soon will be in new or totally refurbished spaces. The Bush, on the other hand, might have a gleaming new mini-foyer downstairs and reconfigured bench seating in the auditorium (not much of an improvement on the kind of physical discomfort for which it is now renowned), but otherwise it remains largely what it has ever been.
"While others get new theatres, we have looked to consolidate in the nature of our work," says Mike Bradwell, its artistic director for the past six years but who, since 1974, has directed some 30 Bush productions (out of more than 350 in the theatre's three decades).
That work often provides what Bradwell calls a kind of "close-up magic" for everyone in the room. The Bush's 30th season has opened with the kind of outstanding new play - The Glee Club - that has also made the theatre's reputation so strong over the years, and Bradwell has directed it with an incisive precision that's a joy to watch.
"If something is working like that, you get a genuine shared experience between the audience and the performers that takes people elsewhere," he notes. "When you get that charge that you get in The Glee Club, it has that power and that's why I love it."
But the play - the fifth by writer Richard Cameron to be premiered at the Bush - is no merely accidental success. "For the first time," says Bradwell proudly, "we have got a comprehensive development scheme in place, and by that I mean dramaturgical rather than fundraising. It was a two-year process to get The Glee Club to that script, working through public and private readings and workshops; and now we commission far more work with more writers, too."
In May, the Bush will premiere Mike Packer's A Carpet, A Pony and a Monkey, which Bradwell will also direct. He explains about the process from which the piece was born: "It's part of our proactive commissioning, where we match a writer with some kind of idea. This came from sending Mike to follow ticket touts to Euro 2000. He went with them to all the England games in Belgium and Holland, and this is the play what he wrote!"
Another play that was premiered at the Bush, Flamingos, "came from sending Jonathan Hall to stay at a gay bed and breakfast in Blackpool. And recently we sent Michael Wilcox on a Saga holiday - though he didn't want to go," Bradwell recalls. Wilcox, whose plays have been done regularly at the Bush, came round in the end with a little persuasion.
The theatre has what the director calls "a very large extended family of the usual suspects" of writers, as well as actors and directors, whose work has been nurtured and developed here. Some have even been unusual suspects - for instance, Tina Brown, the legendary magazine editor (Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Talk) now based in New York, had a play produced here fresh from graduating from Oxford. Bradwell remembers: "It was about a smart-ass Oxford graduate going off to conquer America, so was rather prescient!"
It was also at the Bush that Victoria Wood wrote her debut sketch and first met Julie Walters when they performed it on the Bush stage together. "I found the script yesterday, and for our 30th birthday gala - which we're doing on 28 April at the Royal College of Music where Victoria Wood will perform the cabaret - I'm going to get Vicki and Julie to sign it so we can auction it off."
Despite the roll call of famous names, Bradwell insists that his theatre isn't merely a seedbed for talent to emerge in, before going elsewhere. It is rather an end in and of itself. "We're as important to the theatrical ecology of Great Britain as the National is. Inevitably, however, people see it as some kind of stepping stone to greater triumphs in better subsidised venues or other media, but the standards of work you get at the Bush are as good as it gets anywhere."
This is because, according to Bradwell, in everything they do, the writer is considered paramount: "We seek to offer them the best possible experience they can get for their work." And while the theatre is now able to finance people properly for that work, Bradwell says, too, "What we've always strived for is that everyone has a good time working here, because they don't get paid enough to have a bad time!"
Bradwell, who was the founder-director of Hull Truck Theatre Company and subsequently an associate at the Royal Court to Max Stafford-Clark, says, "The most important thing is to get the work of our writers seen by as many people as possible". With only 100 seats a night, that's necessarily limited, but the theatre's influence extends way beyond those numbers.
"We now regard the world as our studio space, and go to as many places as possible with the work, including the West End and New York." Shows have also travelled to other American cities, and been developed for other media. Catherine Johnson's Shang-a-Lang, for instance, has toured the UK, and is now in pre-production as a film.
While Bradwell notes the irony of the fact that the downstairs pub "has changed from being a real Irish spit-and-sawdust public bar run by people from Cork to now being a fake Irish pub", his own ideals for the theatre remain intact. "It's hard work running a theatre above a noisy, faux Irish pub and having to deal with fundraisers and so on, but the benefits are gigantic and there is nothing else I could do.
"Working with this incredible bunch of actors on The Glee Club, we never stopped laughing from the first to the last day of rehearsals. You are playing in the premiere league with these people. That buzz is why you do it. That, and the fact that we're all there to tell stories."
A Carpet, a Pony and a Monkey (15 May to 15 June).