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An education theatre for 43 years

Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin is a journalist specialising in training and education.
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I recently spent a gay – in every sense - evening at the Cockpit Theatre near Marylebone Station. The event, presented by Mountview, was a piece, Very Pleasant Sensations, a three hander by Paul Guest about Britten, Auden and Isherwood.

The play was grittily interesting and it was good to see what was, in effect, a directorial showcase. Dan Phillips, who had directed the piece, has just completed Mountview’s postgraduate directing course and this was a demonstration of his work.

I was also pleased to make acquaintance with the rather attractive Cockpit Theatre – somewhere I’ve known of for many years but until now, had never visited or experienced at first hand. When I was a young teacher working for the old Inner London Education Authority, the 240-seat Cockpit – designed by Edward Mendelsohn - was newly built and part of the ILEA’s facilities for teachers and students in the capital. So, right from the beginning, London’s first purpose built theatre in the round since the Great Fire in 1666, was an education initiative.

After the winding up of the ILEA in 1990, ownership of the Cockpit was transferred to the Borough of Westminster, which made it part of City of Westminster College (CWC). The college still owns and manages it. Thus it has remained a theatre used for education.

In 2011, however, CWC moved its main operation to new premises at Paddington Green and which includes a theatre. That has meant that for the last two years, the Cockpit has not been used for teaching or as a base for academic staff. Instead it has been developed as a full-time theatre and training venue. This autumn, for example, the programme includes fringe theatre and shows from the UK and abroad, ranging from Shakespeare and Moliere as well as a show – the education dimension again – by Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

It makes good sense to me for such a pleasant theatre (there’s a nice bar with eats at the front) with a long education history to be used by drama schools. Whether they come from elsewhere and need a London venu,e or are based in London and want to give students a wide range of experience of working in different styles and sizes of theatre across the capital, it’s a useful resource. Drama schools almost always, it seems to me, have more shows than they can accommodate in an on-site theatre even if they’ve got one.

Fringe theatre venues are inclined to struggle financially too so deals with drama schools must surely be a win win: income for the theatre and good experience for the students.

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