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New Bush Catches Fire

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One day this week we should know who is to succeed Josie Rourke as artistic director of the Bush, as the theatre moves around the corner from the increasingly unpleasant pub on the Green to its wonderful new home in the old Shepherds Bush Library on Uxbridge Road.

Odds on favourite must be Tamara Harvey, who has directed the "soft opening" production in the new Bush, Where's My Seat?; but other runners and riders might include Sarah Franckom of the Royal Exchange, Manchester, Samuel Hodges of the High Tide Festival or even Josie's associate Kate Budgen. And how about that busy freelance Indhu Rubasingham?

After the appointment of Roxana Silbert to succeed Rachel Kavanaugh at the Birmingham Rep, an even bigger surprise followed with the announcemnet last week that Gareth Machin of the National Theatre studio would follow Philip Wilson at the Salisbury Rep. This sounds like a brave and lively appointment, and further evidence that there are quite a few talented young directors bubbling under right now.

Meanwhile, back at the Bush, the opening show is as much about possessing the building as watching the triple bill of plays by Deirdre Kinahan, Tom Wells and Jack Thorne. Everything happens at ground floor level: the large adaptable theatre space, the welcoming bar and sitting out area and the outside garden which looks like a neglected allotment.

But the audience for Where's My Seat is also invited, in the two intervals, to wander onto the other two floors, where the loos are, and inspect the offices, the rehearsal room, the writer's cubby hole and the storage space.

As I wandered round on Friday night, you could sense the punters taking pleasure in their new surroundings, writing post-it notes, filling in questionnaires, even scrawling messages on the lavatory walls (my favourite, combining appropriate sentiment with graffiti loucheness, was, "I want to live in your bush").

This all created that precious feeling of complicity between artists and audience that defines all the best theatre. Everyone seemed happy with the choice of seating --  some banquettes, and a mixture of stand-alone hard-backed chairs and comfy old cinema seats -- but they'd all gone potty with the question, should the Bush do musicals? Yes, yes, yes please, I love musicals, when do we start, more musicals...and so on.

I recall that Tamara once directed a fantastic punk rock musical in the old Bush that disappeared without trace, perhaps discouraging her from more in that line. Perhaps this outburst of public enthusiasm will start her thinking again.

The new theatre would certainly have more room to accommodate musical and electronic gear, and with the Menier going down the Sondheim route, it would be refreshing to have a lively, focussed investigation of rougher, native wood notes wild in West London.

The sense of informality and the totally unexpected took over the plays, too, which were a mixture of nutty surrealism, wistful poetry and, in the final piece, Jack Thorne's Red Car Blue Car, an impressive return to the old Bush Theatre style with two intense overlapping narratives.

Kinahan's The Fingers of Faversham was a funny radicalisation of an am dram company's Toad of Toad Hall, while Wells's Fossils pitched the ageless Francesca Annis against the redoubtable Richard Cordery (who always looks to me like the history master "having a go"; which is, more or less, what he is) as a pair of old friends who missed the boat as lovers.

The whole project started with a random collection of props borrowed from the National Theatre (a coal scuttle, a large strawberry, a pair of rabbits, a blue plane, a basketball, a glass cabinet, a necklace of fingers) and a series of stage directions using those props and written by Josie herself, Michael Grandage and Alan Ayckbourn.

Ayckbourn's stage direction for Fossils is so long they gave up reading it out. The others challenged all notions of logic and traditional propriety in the theatre, thus kick-starting the zaniness of the texts. A marvellous idea.

The Bush's co-founder, Nick Newton, was in the audience, and loving every minute of it. Charles Spencer was mentioned in the Kinahan play as having been scorched in an incendiary incident and looked just relieved not to have been hung, drawn and quartered. And Michael Billington, hugger mugger with Josie for most of the evening, was relishing further visits to what is in effect his local down the road.   
It's already hard to see how the new Bush can be anything but a roaring success. And the fish and chip shop right opposite is fairly OK, too.


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