Kirk puts Jermyn Street Theatre into warp drive

Aleks Sierz

Stage 100 award winner Jermyn Street Theatre is making a big noise in the West End, despite its small size. Artistic director Gene David Kirk tells Aleks Sierz how this has come about

Gene David Kirk has done it again. The artistic director of the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre has pulled off a programming coup that must surely make other venues gnash their teeth. On the London fringe, he’s staging the world premiere of a rare Beckett piece with Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon. And he’s done it not by throwing money at the project, but by using his brains.

When I hook up with the dapper 42-year-old Kirk, he explains how the Beckett project evolved out of his philosophy of programming. “I read around the great playwrights, not just their major work, but also the forgotten work, the plays they wrote before their first success, or after they went out of fashion,” he says. This is an insight that led him to successfully stage a forgotten Terence Rattigan play, Less Than Kind, last year, and he is now about to open a forgotten Ibsen drama.

But the Beckett project also owes a lot to networking. When Imogen Stubbs was playing Rita Allmers in Little Eyolf at the JST last year, she mentioned that her husband, Trevor Nunn, had always wanted to direct Beckett’s All That Fall. Kirk knew this radio play – which was broadcast by the BBC in 1957 – because he had read all of Beckett’s radio work, and, while working on the Urban Scrawl project for the audio website Theatrevoice, he had reread them “in order to get my mind attuned to exquisite radio writing”.

Nunn, who was in the process of separating from Stubbs, agreed to direct the play if Kirk could get the rights. Nunn was sceptical because he himself had already tried, and failed. At first, Kirk fared no better, but then he used an argument based on the smallness of his theatre space: “Explain to me the difference,” he said to the Beckett estate, “between people in the 1950s going to a radio studio to watch a radio play being broadcast live and people watching a radio play set up as if for a broadcast in my tiny 70-seat theatre.”

The estate admitted there was no difference, and sold Kirk the rights. “And Trevor is a man of his word,” says Kirk, “a real gentleman, because he agreed to direct the play. He was blown away by the fact that I managed to get the rights.” The production will open in October, and Nunn says, “I am delighted to finally have the chance of putting on a play that I have wanted to do for years.”

This is only the latest piece of good news for Kirk’s JST. In January, the venue won the Stage 100 award for fringe theatre of the year. “The award means so much,” says Kirk. “I get so much pleasure from what I do that it is great to be recognised – it really makes a difference. It makes all of us here walk a little lighter and it makes you think that, actually, people are noticing what we do. It helps massively with profile and when you are recognised by professionals it’s like getting a qualification.”

Also in January, The Art of Concealment, Giles Cole’s new play about Terence Rattigan, provided a suitable end to the Rattigan anniversary year, and it then transferred to the Riverside Studios. Other recent successes include a revival of Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry, about Byron and Shelley, and Charles Dyer’s Mother Adam, a sell-out show about surreal old age starring Jasper Britton.A former RAF officer, Kirk is both passionate and charming. He brings the same mischievous joy to answering his mobile phone – “Jermyn Street Chinese Laundry” – as to talking up his theatre and celebrating the fringe’s contribution to our theatre environment. He previously worked on programming for Theatre 503, a south London venue for new writing. Unsurprisingly, the one thing that ruffles his cool exterior is the fact that some broadsheets don’t come to review all of the JST’s own output.

Kirk’s programme for the coming year suggests that this is their loss. First up is St John’s Night by Ibsen, the UK premiere of the Norwegian master’s first performed play. “A friend of ours from Oslo National Theatre told us about this work,” says Kirk, “which was written when Ibsen was 19, but played for only three performances in 1851. It was panned by the critics because of his views on nationalism and he would never allow it to be published in his lifetime.”

Then, in the 1970s, the Oxford University Press commissioned European literature scholar James McFarlane to translate some of Ibsen’s early works and St John’s Night was included in the collection, which just sat on the shelf. “I read it and was completely amazed,” says Kirk. “It’s a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and it’s riotous and satirical. At one point, the stage directions say that a mountain opens up and a Goblin King appears. So let’s see how that will work.”

The JST also has a mission to develop small-scale musicals. This year, Kirk’s cabaret-style review show is Sunny Side of the Street, based on the music of Dorothy Fields, with a stunning cast – Rosemary Ashe, Helen Hobson, Leanne Jones, Jane Milligan and Shona White. A chance to get up close to see, and hear, some West End stars.

This is followed later by a new Luke Bateman and Katy Darby musical, The Lost Stradivarius, based on a Victorian ghost story by John Meade Falkner. “This is a passion of mine,” smiles Kirk. “I love Victorian ghost stories and everybody knows about MR James, but John Meade Falkner predates him and he wrote this wonderful novella. We are workshopping it at the moment. It’s part of my desire to find these dusty jewels.”

Like his attitude to new plays and classics, this is another example of his philosophy: “Read the whole canon and then decide what to stage. Don’t just read the commercial stuff.”

* Sunny Side of the Street runs until July 7 at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London; St John’s Night runs from July 10 to August 4.

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