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Editors' Blog: Theatre Squatters Go Mainstream

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London is awash with new theatre spaces, as companies everywhere are heeding Mike Bradwell’s call-to-arms in his excellent book The Reluctant Escapologist to “Find a play. Squat a building. Steal a van. Now make a show.”

With the Arcola recently rehomed and the Bush, New End and Southwark Playhouse soon following suit, fringe venues are showing the kind of transience their bigger, older and creakier West End cousins can only dream of. Elsewhere, plays are being showcased in an increasingly inventive array of ‘found’ spaces, from the Old Vic Tunnels to the St Katharine Docks.

Last night I saw Double Feature 2 in the National Theatre’s Paintframe, a warehouse-like environment beneath the Olivier auditorium that has been masterfully reclaimed for performance (I’m not entirely sure who to credit for this, but ‘Environment Designer’ Soutra Gilmour seems a good place to start).

The plays – by the embarrassingly talented Prasanna Puwanarajah and Tom Basden (Prasanna is a qualified doctor as well as actor, playwright and director, while Tom is an Edinburgh Award-winning comic who, like his Cowards contemporaries has shown a natural aptitude for theatre) – are showcased in a space that feels altogether theirs. The air in the cavernous Paintframe is free from the stench of history that hangs heavy in the air of the Olivier, Lyttelton and Cottesloe.

The Double Feature project ends this week - catch it if you possibly can - but I hope other venues will follow the National’s example and open themselves up to the possibilities of site-specific work within their own buildings (others, such as the Barbican, have long been wise to this trick).

The National Theatre Wales is perhaps the best example of a new company that, in the words of Deborah Shaw at yesterday’s RSC World Shakespeare Festival launch, “uses the landscape as its theatre”. Under the leadership of John McGrath it has shown that a national theatre doesn’t necessarily need to have a building, let alone be building-based.

‘Found’ spaces are nothing new, of course, and one could argue they take us back to the roots of pageant wagon theatre. But it certainly feels to me that, as the supply of theatre talent increasingly outstrips the number of buildings that can contain it (due in no small part to the huge number of drama schools now increasing the bottleneck each year), the work is simply overflowing into any new space that will take it. Long may this trend continue.


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