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London’s legendary Bush Theatre: What’s new?

The new Bush Theatre extension. Photo: Philip Vile
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For one of the capital’s most progressive theatre hubs to set up shop in an abandoned Victorian library always threatened to be an awkward fit.

For nearly 40 years the Bush had been producing world-class, cutting-edge theatre in a cramped 80-seat black box above a pub on Shepherd’s Bush Green. Audiences happily accepted the lack of comfort and feelings of claustrophobia in the certain knowledge they would be witnessing the birth of a bright new theatrical talent, whether it was actor, writer or director.

Read our interview with artistic director Madani Younis

Then, in 2010, the theatre had the opportunity to move to the recently vacated Shepherds Bush Library, a rather grand redbrick pile, around the corner in Uxbridge Road.

The good news was that the move had the potential to accommodate audiences three times as big. The bad news was that the building looked like an old-fashioned library, not an out-of-town fringe venue noted for new writing. So the incoming artistic director Madani Younis committed £4.3 million to restyle the library as a theatre fit to function in a multicultural community in the 21st century.

Enter Steve Tompkins of Haworth Tompkins, theatre architects par excellence, the man who dragged London’s Royal Court into the new millennium and, more recently, gave Chichester Festival Theatre a dazzling new lease of life.

Exterior view of the redeveloped Bush Theatre’s north elevation. Photo: Philip Vile

Tompkins’ brief was to retain the feel and ethos of the old library – the laid-back reading room area adjacent to the bar and box office has been kept more or less as it was – while making the building fit for purpose as a dynamic, metropolitan playhouse.

“A lot of the redevelopment was just rationalising existing space,” says executive producer Jon Gilchrist, who came to the Bush in 2014. “There were too many areas of the old building that were dormant and unused.”

So where there was once an attic full of discontinued books, there is now a state-of-the-art rehearsal room; a couple of old store rooms have been turned into his and hers dressing rooms; and a multi-purpose studio theatre now occupies space reclaimed from the library site.

With a seating capacity of 70, the studio holds almost as many people as the original Bush above the pub.

One of the main problems with the library prior to the refit was the nightly bottleneck in the foyer, with people entering the building, queuing for tickets and trying to get served at the bar all in the same confined space. The new main entrance is now at the side of the building, instead of the front, and the box office is separate from the bar.

There is now a substantial terrace area at the side of the building, part covered, part open to the elements, with easy disabled access, that will be opened up to make a whole new public area in the spring and summer months. Apparently it is the only public building on the Uxbridge Road with an outdoor space. There is also a grassed-over outdoor area on the roof of the building, but that is for staff only.

View into the reading room. Photo: Philip Vile

The project has also addressed the issues of temperature control – having been too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer – soundproofing and having too few ladies’ loos.

The buzzword Gilchrist uses several times to describe the new-look Bush is “porous”, which I take to mean more accessible than the old building. It was crucial to make it look inviting to passers-by in the Uxbridge Road.

“If I were to stand outside Shepherd’s Bush Market tube station (opposite the library) and say to people: ‘What’s that building across the road?”, my guess is that most wouldn’t know,” he says. “Until quite recently we still had people coming in asking if they could do some photocopying.”

To this end, the box office area is now openly visible to passers-by through a 3.2-metre-high glass window, and there is a large neon sign, proclaiming the theatre’s name, jutting out above the pavement. The current programme will also be signed by illuminated poster sites.

The auditorium itself has been “tweaked” rather than redeveloped, says Gilchrist.

The four pillars are still there, partly “because it would have cost a huge amount of money to remove them and partly because they are an integral part of the character of the space,” he explains.

The entrance to the auditorium has been repositioned, new LED electrics have been installed, as well as new light-weight (individual) seating, enabling greater flexibility and multiple configurations.

In terms of how the company arranges the auditorium, Gilchrist says the team is now limited only by the imaginations of director and designer.

Nobody doubts that the Bush will continue its noble tradition of challenging new drama. What remains to be seen is how it will impact on the local community, one of the most diverse in Europe.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could create a theatre where a 70-year-old woman from a multimillion-pound house in Holland Park felt as comfortable here as a 16-year-old lad from the White City estate?” says Gilchrist. “We’d like to create a building that doesn’t feel as if it belongs to any particular social group.”

New talent, edgy writing and cuts: a history of the Bush

Artistic director Madani Younis outside the Bush Theatre this year. Photo: Richard Davenport

When the Bush Theatre opened in 1972 in a room half the size of a tennis court above the Bush Hotel, once used for dance classes by Lionel Blair, the capital’s fringe theatre boom was on full throttle. Pub theatres were popping up all over the place. Its opening show, an adaptation of John Fowles’ debut novel The Collector, was good but unremarkable.

Stephen Poliakoff in 1977

The combined driving force behind it were the actors Brian McDermott and John Neville, who respectively starred in and directed The Collector. I doubt if either would have imagined the Bush would still be going stronger than ever 40 years later.

Its reputation for edgy new writing kicked in when the triumvirate of Simon Stokes, Jenny Topper and Nicky Pallot took over the running of the Bush in the mid-1970s. They commissioned writers such as John McGrath, Howard Barker, Doug Lucie, David Eldridge and Stephen Poliakoff, most of them completely unheard of at the time.

Poliakoff’s debut plays, Hitting Town and City Sugar, proclaimed him as a major new talent. The latter went on to a West End transfer, showing that the Bush meant business.

Later, the likes of Jonathan Harvey, Terry Johnson, Helen Edmundson, Samuel Adamson, Irvine Welsh, Conor McPherson, Joe Penhall and Bryony Lavery were to follow with remarkable new work. The critics who mattered dutifully turned up on press nights, squashed into the small but perfectly formed space.

The Bush Theatre’s first production as reported in The Stage in April 1972 (click to enlarge)

But it wasn’t just writers who were drawn to the Bush fire – both Simon Callow and Victoria Wood made their mark there in the 1970s: Callow in his first one-man show, Juvenalia, and Wood in the satirical revue In at the Death. Directors too – Dominic Dromgoole (1990-96), Mike Bradwell (1996-2007) and Josie Rourke (2007-2011) – forged successful careers out of the most exciting (and uncomfortable) black box in town.

After he left the Bush, Dromgoole, who went on to run Shakespeare’s Globe, published a brilliant and highly personal analysis of new writing in the late 20th century, The Full Room, which ruffled a lot of literary feathers.

In 2008, the year after Rourke took the reins, Arts Council England announced a proposed funding cut that triggered a massive cry of indignation from the industry and beyond, resulting in the Arts Council reinstating its core funding.

The arrival of Madani Younis in 2012 heralded a new era for the Bush, not only in terms of box office – 2013 was its most successful season ever – but in terms of re-establishing it as a theatrical force for future generations.

Traditionally, the Bush has always punched above its weight. Now, for the first time, it has a world-class theatre to match its with a formidable track record.

Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj, directed by Jamie Lloyd, is the Bush’s latest show – it runs from April 7 to May 20


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