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Indhu leads fringe awakening

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Indhu Rubasingham, new artistic director of the Tricycle in Kilburn, said that she was scared and daunted when first appointed, and that she had a very hard act to follow in the twenty-eight years of Nicolas Kent's regime. But she didn't mention money, or constrictions after the Arts Council cuts which, Kent had said, would undermine her chances of success.

Instead, at a relaxed Press conference yesterday morning, she promised that nobody would be disappointed with her {programme in a theatre where she first worked when she was "twelve" (well, very young), directing Roy Williams' second play, Starstruck. Co-directing The Great Game: Afghanistan with Nic Kent had been a high point in her career, and her collaboration with playwright Lynn Nottage on Fabulation at the Tricyle had led to a lasting creative relationship that would be continued very soon.

She also said that she had three watch words: quality, provocation and engagement. The latter was key, as no theatre meant anything without its audience, and in Brent, the most diverse borough in the capital, she was aiming to conduct a dialogue with the community and to view the world through a variety of different lenses.

Her opening show in October, Red Velvet, about the 19th century American black actor Ira Aldridge, features the husband and wife pair of actor Adrian Lester and writer Lolita Chakrabarti, two of her closest friends and colleagues, while the fourth show next February, Paper Dolls, an adaptation of a television documentary, charts the story of Filippino immigrant care workers in an Israeli home for othodox geriatrics who form (the care workers, not the geriatrics) a cross-dressing cabaret group in their spare time; that ticks enough  boxes to wrong-foot the sternest Arts Council grant-giving questionnaire, but sounds promising nonetheless.

At Christmas, Indhu presents the first ever Tricycle family show for the season, The Arabian Nights by the American author and director Mary Zimmerman, and there's another surprise collaboration with the little known Eclipse Theatre on One Monkey Don't Stop No Show which she describes as a cross between Bill Cosby and Restoration comedy. 

You could say (or Nic Kent might) that collaboration with other companies is one way of minimising the effects of the cuts. But Indhu is by nature and inclination a collaborator and I guess that her programme would have had a similar stamp whatever the financial situation. It's certainly different, and it's not going down any sort of predictable or well worn "new writing" route, though she has appointed  the former senior reader at the Royal Court, Nic Wass, as an artistic associate.

Over coffee and sarnies, Indhu fielded some gentle questions from journalists including her own board member, Baz Bamigboye of the Daily Mail, and her great friend from university, Variety critic David Benedict. And she was ready with a good answer to the question of how the expectations of Tricycle audiences would have to adjust to not seeing a verbatim tribunal play every other month.

"If I were to do a tribunal play, that would be seen as, and would certainly be, a pale imitation of what has gone before. The one thing I learned from Nic Kent was the art of risk-taking, and I'm incredibly excited about moving the theatre in a new direction."

When it first opened, under the direction of Canadian director Kenneth Chubb and his wife, Shirley Barrie, the Tricycle was based in a pub near King's Cross, the Pindar of Wakefield, once patronised by Karl Marx and Lenin. More recently, it was acquired by the Water Rats, an association of variety performers. Chubb's first seasons included plays by French absurdists and New York bohemians.

That was in the early 1970s, as the fringe theatre exploded in London, a period under review once more this week with a series of readings and discussions to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Soho Theatre, originally the Soho Poly, in a basement in Ridinghouse Street near Oxford Circus.
Tonight, Fred Proud, who founded the Poly with his late wife, the amazing Verity Bargate, will introduce the festival and a reading of a short play by Robert Holman who, along with Howard Brenton, Snoo Wilson, David Edgar, Bob Hoskins, Barrie Keeffe and Frank Marcus, was one of the Soho Poly regular writers in the lunchtime spot.

Lunchtime was where it was at in those days, and not just for playwrights. Actors like John Hurt, David Warner, Nigel Hawthorne (who was in the very first Soho Poly play in March 1972), Fiona Walker and Julia Foster turned out, too. And audiences could feast on a crusty bread roll and delicious home-made soup for a couple of bob.

Tomorrow, the Miniaturists group of writers will present three 20-minute plays at 1pm and again at 7pm, and on Thursday lunchtime there's a conversation joined by Irving Wardle, Michael Billington and myself.

Most of the Soho Poly plays, at first, were outspoken and often gloriously funny satires, but the repertory expanded to include short European classics, Sam Shepard, political fantasies and wild adventures: it really was a cornucopia of riches in a little room.

And this was happening all over town at lunchtime, in Soho at the Act Inn in Brewer Street, where I suggested an actor called Jermey Irons, then appearing in Godspell by night, had no future to speak of, and the Almost Free in Brewer Street; in Covent Garden and King's Cross with the Wakefield Tricyle and the Lamb and Flag opposite the Garrick Club; at Charles Marowitz's Open Space in Tottenham Court Road (where Thelma Holt was patron saint and critics' moll) and at David Halliwell's "multi-viewpoint" drama base at Quipu, run by BBC radio actor Walter Hall in a garret off St Martin's Lane; and at the late Dan Crawford's King's Head (most conspicuously run in those days by his then wife Joan Crawford), where the soup and sausages were excellent, too.

Bargate, Holt, Joan Crawford: these were the new women of fringe theatre, energising the actors and playwrights, cajoling the critics, finding thne money, the modern equivalents of Lady Gregory at the Abbey, Annie Horniman in the regions and Lilian Baylis at the Old Vic. And still people say that not enough women run our theatres: they invented them all! And how good it is to see Indhu Rubasingham taking her rightful place at the top table.


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