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Michael Coveney: Who needs artistic directors? Not even the new JW3 arts centre?

A theatre can only forge its own personality and reputation with an artistic director at the helm

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It almost beggars belief that both the Rose in Kingston, Surrey, and the spanking new St James Theatre in Victoria have announced they will continue operating without artistic directors, following the departures of their respective leaders, Stephen Unwin and David Gilmore.

Theatre owners and executive wallahs always kid themselves that they can arrange a programme. Technically, of course, they can, in the sense of making phone calls, drawing up contracts and hiring staff and marketing personnel. But an artistic director like Unwin or Gilmore - both creative artists of some considerable pedigree and vast experience - have the inside track on their profession, a feeling for what's new and lively, personal contact with directors and actors, creative intelligence and an informed sensitivity.

The Rose is a difficult theatre, but Unwin has consistently provided an attractive and often daring programme, while Gilmore at the St James has spent many days on the road tracking down quality touring product such as Jonathan Miller's revival of Rutherford and Son for Northern Broadsides, or Trevor Nunn's of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage (Nunn is a longstanding friend and colleague of Gilmore's), or indeed Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) at the Theatre Royal, Bath, which opens this week.

Would a faceless, non-theatrically minded suit or executive rush to make life so interestingly difficult for his in-house fund-raisers as Gilmore has done by scheduling a brutally frank amoral art house play about sex and despair followed by a medically historical guide to the artificial stimulation of the female orgasm? Probably not.

A theatre must forge its own personality and reputation, and can only do so with an artistic director at the helm; unless, of course, it wants to subside into receiving house anonymity. I was sorry to hear of the collapse of local funding for the once proud and distinguished Nottingham Playhouse, but a theatre that has gone down the "shared production" route and played the Arts Council survival game of pooled resources for so long is probably going to implode at some stage or other.

One initiative that has caught my eye in north London is the new JW3 community centre and arts venue on the Finchley Road, a project funded and inspired by Vivien Duffield and specifically engaged with Jewish arts, learning, life... and cooking.

The enterprise, which I checked out last night by catching their first theatrical production, a verbatim drama, Listen, We're Family by Kerry Shale (the man of a thousand voices on radio) and director Matthew Lloyd, is absolutely amazing. And because of the nature of what they propose doing, they are probably much better off, paradoxically, with a CEO (Raymond Simonson) than they would be with an artistic director.

The cast of Listen, We're Family at JW3

JW3 - it's described as the new postcode for Jewish life - has risen on the site of a Mercedes Benz garage, trading transport on wheels for transports of delight. Ironically, there's no parking, a fault pointed out in the first few minutes of the new show with the indisputable observation that Jews like to drive everywhere.

Once inside, however, you can have a meal (reports from the restaurant are enthusiastic), sip a drink at a superb open plan bar, catch a movie in the new 60-seater cinema, learn Hebrew, sign up for workshops in chocolate or choux pastry, get fit in the dance studio, or listen to live conversations with... Kevin Spacey has promised, Michael Grade next week, Nicholas Hytner on 9 December. Main events are held in The Hall, an adaptable space with comfortable seating for 270.

Listen, We're Family is billed as the first Jewish verbatim play, using the form of actors reproducing exactly what they are hearing in earphones as pioneered in this country by Alecky Blythe - whose best work to date, London Road at the NT, threw the earphones away.

It's not a gimmick I've ever felt happy with. If the actors have done several performances of the same material, the process can no longer have the element of surprise and freshness for them as is no doubt intended. And the audience is in a permanent state of mild anxiety as the they concentrate on what they are hearing instead of how they are performing. In addition, there are great general problems of pace, timing, inter-reaction and indeed slipperiness and inaccuracy in the articulation.

That said, Listen, We're Family is a wonderful, vital digest of the stories and testimonies of the Jewish community all over London - Hendon, Enfield, Ruislip, the East End, Essex - performed by a top quartet of actors: Shale himself as a doddery old barber, a baker, a rabbi and a non-believer ("Stayin' in on a Friday night; where does that get me?"); Maggie Steed as a reminiscent old Essex girl who left her husband after 33 years; Peep Show comedy star Isy Suttie as a Canadian biographer of Primo Levi and a member of "Jews for Justice for Palestinians"; and Tom Berish as a "Tony Blair" type and a gay hipster.

It's all a bit of a babble, and a babel, and there's no real attempt to intertwine, or make any dramatic pressure in, the stories, so the overall effect is a bit confusing. But the idea is good, and a lot of the material is both funny and deeply touching, ranging from discussion of the Israel "problem" to surprising tales of a suburban spanking club.

The crowd last night included the playwright Julian Mitchell - who tells me that he still has hopes of a West End transfer for his highly praised Chichester revival of Another Country directed by Jeremy Herrin and starring Will Attenborough and Rob Callender - and the actor David Horovitch, both impressed by the set-up, and the play. Just as I did when I first went to Jez Bond's Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, I'm already looking forward to going back.