The north London home of experimental theatre is celebrating its 25th anniversary in good shape and with a healthy roster of challenging new work, dealing with subjects from race HS2. Nick Smurthwaite uncovers its secret to survival
The launchpad for many experimental companies – Ridiculusmus, Shunt, Blind Summit, Fevered Sleep, Sh!t Theatre and Unlimited among them – Camden People’s Theatre has built a reputation for challenging new work by emerging artists, low ticket prices and a young audience, all within a stone’s throw of the West End.
A spirit of optimism abounded in 1994, the year that Tony Blair gave new hope to the Labour Party and the country. After 15 years in power, the Tories were running out of steam and a young, bright-eyed Labour leader with the gift of the gab was offering Britain a bright new dawn.
That CPT – which grew out of the long-established, left-leaning Unity Theatre – kicked off at the same time as New Labour may have been a coincidence. But 25 years on, only one of the two is still going strong.
With more than 400 rookie theatre companies or solo artists passing through its doors annually, the pace of life at CPT headquarters, a converted pub in Hampstead Road around the corner from Euston Station, is frenetic.
The Manchester-based playwright Chris Thorpe, one of the founder directors of Unlimited, recalled in an interview with the Guardian the sanctuary-like embrace of CPT in his formative years: “Back in the days before the internet and social media, London could feel like a massive monolith that was really hard to crack. So it was really important to be invited somewhere that, yes, was ramshackle and running on the balls of its feet to keep alive, but which was run by good people and which felt like a place of safety amid the confusion of London. It wasn’t so much ‘come here and prove yourself’ as ‘come here and talk with us’.”
From the tiniest office imaginable, amazing adventures would unfold
A former director of CPT, Olivia Jacobs, now joint-artistic director of Tall Stories, says she couldn’t think of any other company “where I could have learned so much so quickly. From the tiniest office imaginable, amazing adventures would unfold.”
Actor Tom Frankland describes CPT as “brash and cheeky, its quirks inform the work, with the building adding its own personality to the performance.’
Brian Logan, CPT’s artistic director since 2011, as well as The Guardian’s comedy critic, sees the venue today as “lovable, eccentric and dysfunctional”. A priority for the future, says Logan, is to upgrade the Camden Council-owned building and branch out into the upper floors. He adds: “We are definitely intending to stay here and to make the building more fit for purpose.”
In terms of the work, CPT aims to bring a fresh perspective to contemporary concerns, be they racial, sexual, feminist, ecological or, in the case of the forthcoming docudrama Human Jam, inspired by the coming of HS2’s new railway terminal, a subject that is particularly dear to Logan’s heart.
He has personally campaigned to safeguard local interests, and will be hosting the show, which runs from May 7 until May 25.
It was Logan who introduced the programme Starting Blocks in 2011, which helps solo artists and newly formed companies to develop new work and establish themselves as independent theatre practitioners, as well as the festival of feminism, Calm Down, Dear, which has been a yearly fixture since 2013. The tagline for this “unapologetically feminist” line of work was “Destroying the patriarchy in three weeks… or your money back!”
With such a rapid turnover of work, there are bound to be occasional box office duds but its Arts Council portfolio funding ensures that CPT can afford the right to fail.
Logan says, because of its unique situation of producing experimental work in central London, CPT is frequently in the position of having more work than they know what to do with. He says: “We do like to think of ourselves as having a lower bar to entry than some other theatres, but at the same time we do occasionally turn people down on the grounds of lack of experience or not being sufficiently well established. It’s a mug’s game trying to predict what will fly with audiences, but I guess you do develop an instinct for who’s got what it takes.”
One thing about CPT’s programming is indisputable – its audience profile is 76% under 30, a statistic most UK theatres would kill for. Logan says this is partly due to the ticket-pricing policy – £12 each, with a tenner for concessions – and partly because of the youth of the people producing and appearing in the shows.
Logan’s fervent belief is that you can be experimental, community-minded and populist all at once. He says: “Those things can be mutually reinforcing, rather than antagonistic. Squaring that circle is where our ambitions are focused. We are proud to be a central London venue doing this kind of work.”.
The Camden Roar runs at venues throughout the borough from May 7-25; Calm Down, Dear 2019 runs from May 28 to June 16. Details at: cptheatre.co.uk
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