When the penultimate category was announced at the Laurence Olivier Awards in February, there were gasps. Bounding onto the stage to collect her Best Actress in a Musical trophy, Jenna Russell’s first words summed up the amazement felt by the 500-strong industry audience: “fucking hell!” Russell’s win that night made it five Oliviers in total for Sunday in the Park with George – including Outstanding Musical Production, Best Set Design and Best Actor in a Musical for Russell’s co-star Daniel Evans – far surpassing any other nominated show (producers of various Broadway imports were, understandably, seething) and putting the Menier Chocolate Factory, where the Sondheim revival originated, ahead of the country’s flagship theatrical institutions with their massive subsidies and myriad productions.

Humungous luck & success

That such a feat should be achieved by an unsubsidised 150-seater in Southwark is remarkable – that it should be achieved just three years (nearly to the day) after that venue’s launch is mind-boggling. What’s more, those five Oliviers just scratch the surface of the mighty Menier’s accomplishments to date. Add in Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Best Off-West End Production Awards for every one of those three years and subsequent West End transfers for every one of those productions (Fully Committed and, just moved, Little Shop of Horrors, in addition to Sunday), not to mention a Critics’ Circle Award and two Evening Standard accolades, one of them for Outstanding Newcomer (the first time it was ever awarded to a building) and…. well, stupefaction is complete.

Menier co-founder David Babani admits that only in his “wildest dreams” did he ever imagine that “we might get to where we are now in about ten years’ time. It’s all happened rather quickly, which is rather nice and rather surprising and quite scary.”

Babani attributes the speed of success to “a humungous amount of luck”. Certainly, his December 2003 introduction to Danielle Tarento was a tremendous stroke of luck. A former TV actress in the likes of This Life and Dream Team, Tarento was looking for someone to help produce a season of Julius Caesar at the then little-known venue for hire. After an initial interview – during which, Tarento recalls, Babani, just back from working in the Far East, “really interviewed us” – the pair spotted a bigger opportunity. Ten weeks later, the Menier Chocolate Factory launched with its first in-house show, a production of Tamburlaine.

Sweet meal deals

But, however humungous, luck only gets you so far. According to Tarento, “The thing that makes the Chocolate Factory so successful is that it provides a one-stop shop for an evening’s entertainment – from the minute audiences walk in the door to the minute they leave, their entire night is taken care of by people who understand why they’re there.” A very big part of the one-stop shop is the restaurant. Every performance night at this refurbished former Victorian chocolate factory, a few dozen – delicious – meal deals are available for a price still well below the cost of a typical West End ticket.

Even more important is the tasty programming. Babani claims every show is selected selfishly. Developing a production can take a long time. Little Shop of Horrors took three years and Sunday two and a half, so, he says, you really have to want to do them. “When you’re going to live with a project night and day, it’s very important that you want to see that show. Then you hope that somebody else will also want to watch it.”

The Menier team has chosen shrewdly if selfishly. American musicals – be they new to the UK (Jonathan Larsen’s Tick Tick Boom and Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years) or reinvented revivals (Sunday and Little Shop) – have been a notable feature, partly because Babani likes the fact that, in the States, even a musical premiered Off-Broadway might have up to $3 million worth of development spent on it. The Menier, in spite of its commercial limitations, doesn’t skimp either on its shows, which have a reputation for high production values and pushing the boundaries of design. It stumped up £200,000 to create the multi award-winning computer animation projections for Sunday in the Park, which is expected to return a profit when it opens at New York’s Studio 54 next January. And £100,000 was needed for the man-eating plant Audrey II alone in Little Shop of Horrors, which now has a cast including TV impressionist Alistair McGowan making his West End debut.

Avoiding complacency

The Menier’s Little Shop went ahead even though a recent American production of Alan Menken’s sci-fi spoof bombed. “That shows that, even with a show that’s as loved as Little Shop, you can get it wrong, so we work very hard not to be complacent,” Babani says. When it comes to musicals, long a feature of his life, Babani has never been complacent. The son of a north London publisher of Turkish-Austrian origins and an English mother who was a professional bridge player, he discovered theatre through family trips to popular shows such as Cats and Annie, and at school tried everything from acting to sound, lighting and directing.

While still at Bristol University, Babani produced Sondheim’s Assassins at Hampstead’s New End Theatre, leaving a lecture to fly to New York to discuss the project with the great composer. When a new university timetable interfered with directing Eddie Marsan in Richard III, he took an “indefinite sabbatical” from his studies.

The Menier’s future looks busy enough to prevent Babani from completing his degree anytime soon. Just opened last week is Total Eclipse, Christopher Hampton’s 1968 play about the affair between poets Verlaine and Rimbaud. Sunday’s Daniel Evans has returned to star opposite Jamie Doyle, from TV’s Shameless. Then there are plans for a new play from Our Boys author Jonathan Lewis and, if all goes as hoped with negotiations, the premiere of another American musical, Richard Maltby Jr and David Shire’s Take Flight, inspired by the Wright Brothers.

While Tarento stepped down as joint artistic director five months ago, with plans to launch another new London venue soon, Babani insists he’s at the Menier Chocolate Factory for the long term, despite the headache of running a producing house with no public funding. “We can’t afford to have giant flops. It’s tough to make ends meet,” he says. The financial support of a “very kind” landlord – a publicity-shy developer who believes a thriving Menier drives up prices for his other properties in the area – remains vital. “I just hope he can continue to see the value of having us here rather than the value of turning us into penthouses.” Here’s hoping indeed.

Total Eclipse continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 27 May 2007. Little Shop of Horrors is now at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre (0870 060 6623). Louise Jury is an arts reporter for the Independent. A version of this article appears in the March issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer). To guarantee your copy of future editions - and also get all the benefit of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now.

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