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Michael Coveney: Super sure new thing in Shoreditch

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It seemed like the only place to be yesterday, down Shoreditch way, as Paines Plough launched a pilot season in the Town Hall of their new purpose-built Roundabout Theatre, a lovely little wooden-O, seating 138 people, something like the configuration of seats in the Theatre Upstairs for Mike Bartlett's Cock starring Ben Whishaw.

The plays were written by three of our very brightest "new" theatre stars - Nick Payne, Duncan Macmillan and Penelope Skinner - and the pop-up touring amphitheatre, built in partnership with Sheffield Theatres (where the plays were seen last autumn), marks an exciting new development in the history of in-the-round theatres launched by Stephen Joseph in Stoke-on-Trent and then Scarborough 50 years ago.

The wooden module - the segments of seating are placed like fans between strategically placed vomitaria - sat very handsomely in the beautiful Shoreditch Town Hall, an 1866 Victorian landmark right next to Hoxton Square; it's where inquests were held into the death of Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper's last victim, and where Joe Bugner unwittingly got boxing banned in Hackney when his 1969 opponent, Ulric Regis, died after their heavyweight championship fight.

The Hall was saved from ruin (and commercial development) in a grass roots campaign raising £2m and reopened in 2004 with the East London Design Show. It's impossible now to see it as anything else but part of the extraordinary revival in this area, which is like Greenwich Village with all its bars and restaurants and trendy bohemian vibe, man.

The day started at 11am and was punctuated with a lunchbreak (pies and mash, natch) and tea-time with delicious home-made lemon and chocolate cake. Theatre personnel mingled happily (or so it seemed) with a good turn out of critics including Lyn Gardner, queen bee of the fringe, far-too-tall Dominic Maxwell (who was standing by to go and review Stephen Fry in Twelfth Night at the Globe later on, following the other Dominic's busting of the embargo in the Telegraph), bouncy Fiona Mountford (fairly fresh from yet another sun-drenched holiday) and Maxie Szalwinska.

Pregnancy alert: Maxie is expecting, it's official. I thought something was up, if not up the duff, when I out-sprinted her the other night for a train in Kingston after The Sacred Flame; she fessed up then she was three months gone. While we're on the subject, two prominent young theatre directors are expecting very soon, too: Kelly Ann Wilkinson, who's going it alone, brave girl, and (on bonfire night) Svetlana Dimkovic, who's lately relocated with her Serbian IT wizard boyfriend for half the week to Glasgow. Perhaps the two of them will get together with Maxie in the New Year to start a theatre-creche-cum-training-school for new recruits to Billy Elliot and Matilda.  

Anyway, back in Shoreditch, the mood was upbeat over these plays, which ran the gamut from taut, tense "should we have a baby" (suitably enough) dialogue in the Macmillan, to three brilliant little exercises in period dialogue from Payne, to a mystery thriller experiment by Skinner which exposed the mini-epic potential of the new space by accessing all areas within it.

Paines Plough chairperson Caro Newling kept us all posted with company developments and news of Neal Street Productions, which she runs for Sam Mendes, while senior playwrights Robert Holman and Simon Stephens - the latter, surprisingly, without a new play of his own this week - hung out with their colleagues and gave a quality sounding board to the enterprise.

I've known Caro for more years than we like to contemplate, ever since her "tank top" days in the press office at the RSC, through her time at the Donmar Warehouse, transforming it with Mendes into the current powerhouse status it enjoys, and her work - with Mendes and Pippa Harris - at Neal Street on the transatlantic Bridge Project company at the Old Vic and around the world and now on the upcoming stage musical version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

She used to be an avid supporter of Wimbledon FC, but that ardour seems to have cooled, along with our friendship, but she took my card with the ominous promise that she'd now get in touch with me when next infuriated by something I wrote. I look forward to upsetting her in the very near future, if that's the only way we're going to keep in touch...

It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, not least because of the discovery of the Town Hall, which is rather like a posh version of the BAC, with gilded balconies, high ceilings and loads and loads of space. I plan to go back very soon, if only to check out a couple of coffee shops and tapas bars around the corner. And hang out with the in-crowd, my natural habitat, ha-ha.


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