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The Archive: The battle between the world’s smallest theatres

Clea Smith and Adrian Bunting in the World’s Smallest Theatre
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Theatremaker Adrian Bunting’s motto was “never be a punter”. Before his untimely death in 2013, Bunting’s swansong, Kemble’s Riot, used space and spectators to tell the true story of a riot in a London theatre. Dividing the audience in two, he cast one half as disgruntled Georgian protestors, encouraged to jeer at the onstage actors in response to a rise in ticket prices. The other half of the audience were there to sympathise with the beleaguered Kemble, and jeer at the jeerers. It was classic Bunting: noisy, anarchic and the type of theatre in which no one was a mere ‘punter’.

Bunting’s most controversial theatre show was also his smallest. In 1996, inspired by a “cheese-fuelled dream”, he woke up one morning, dismantled his bedside cabinet, painted it blue and turned it into a theatre. On a budget of £7.50, speakers, lights and velvet curtains were added, with just enough room inside for three heads, comprising a cast of two and an audience of one. Together, Bunting and actor Clea Smith worked out a short two-hander about suicide, set in a gas oven. Naturally, it was a comedy. That summer at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Bunting introduced audiences to his latest creation: the World’s Smallest Theatre.

For the first few days, Bunting and Smith eked out a living on the streets of Edinburgh. The novelty and popularity of their show, however, soon led to an invitation to perform in the Pleasance Courtyard, one of the fringe’s main hubs. More importantly, it was always teeming with crowds.

Everything was going well for the pair until the arrival of Marcel Steiner. For years, Steiner had been touring the world with his novelty motorbike and sidecar. Inspired by fellow performer and friend, Ken Campbell, he had converted the sidecar into a sentrybox-cum-theatre, from which he performed plays. These were no mere excerpts but a full repertoire of theatre shows that included War and Peace, A Tale of Two Cities, The Guns of Navarone and The Third Man. The name of Steiner’s act was The Smallest Theatre in the World.

Within a few hours of Steiner’s arrival in Edinburgh, the slanging matches between the two theatre companies began. Bunting stood on one side of the courtyard drumming up support for his by shouting:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are currently standing in the world’s largest foyer, come experience the World’s Smallest Theatre!”

Steiner stood on the other side, yelling: “World’s Smallest Theatre? World’s Smallest Theatre? How dare you steal my livelihood! Twenty-five years I’ve been touring the world. You scoundrel!”

“Smallest Theatre in the World?” Bunting would retaliate. “It’s about 20 times bigger than mine, ladies and gentlemen. Perhaps, Marcel, you should call it slightly larger than the world’s smallest theatre.”

The Stage report on the venue at Edinburgh in 1996
The Stage report on the venue at Edinburgh in 1996

Performers, comedians, politicians, the press and even a Norwegian film crew all turned up to witness the tirade of abuse between the pair. August, traditionally a dead month for news stories, had found its prize. “Fringe title challenge by the smallest shows on Earth” ran a page three feature in The Times.

But it was all a beautiful scam, dreamed up by Steiner’s agent. Behind closed doors, the two parties were getting on famously. And, with Bunting and Steiner charging £30 each for an interview, they were all doing rather nicely out of the whole affair.

Press interest gradually faded until one night Steiner’s agent invited Bunting for a stroll to the car park behind the Pleasance Courtyard.

He lifted up a sheet of tarpaulin and said: “I think you should see this.”

Underneath lay a pile of singed timber, ash, twisted metal parts and a motorbike wheel. It might easily have been mistaken for the burned wreckage of a small motorised theatre. The press were informed and seized upon the story. After that, Bunting’s phone didn’t stop ringing. No one had bothered to check the different wheels or chassis size of the charred remnants. They simply demanded to know one thing.

“Did you do it?” the journalists asked.

“I should have done. The bastard deserves it,” Bunting said, “but no, it wasn’t me.”

The media had the quote they needed and the story went viral. “Curtains fall on sidecar theatre after small blaze” ran a feature on the front page of the Telegraph. It made The Guardian, page two of The Times and countless newspapers worldwide.

Bunting became a full-blown celebrity that summer in Edinburgh and the photo of his miniature theatre became the default image for the Edinburgh Fringe for years afterwards. Steiner, incidentally, had left for Germany the day after the ‘arson attack’. He had a long tour booked and, through nothing less than a miracle, had rebuilt a new mobile theatre in less than 24 hours.

A version of this story appears in David Bramwell’s solo show The Haunted Moustache

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15

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