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The birth of theatres from Liverpool to Fulham

Liverpool's Everyman theatre, with its new facade. Photo: Steve Aland
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I am looking forward to visiting the all-new Everyman Theatre in Liverpool tomorrow, re-opening – 50 years after it was first founded – after a £27m rebuild.

But last night I visited the first-ever production at another brand-new pub theatre, the London Theatre Workshop above the entirely refurbished and re-named Eel Brook (formerly the Southern Cross) on the New King’s Road in Fulham, that has opened with a rather more modest £15,000 being spent on it.

But there’s already a threat hanging over Liverpool, before it even opens. Liverpool City Council has recently announced that it plans to cut its culture budget by 50% by 2017. The Everyman and Playhouse, which received £846,000 from the 2010/11, are already seeing their income drop to £688,000 for 2014/15 and 2015/16. But just as this new jewel is unveiled, can that funding fall further? The council has said they are looking at introducing a new public-private funding system, but details are yet to be announced.

But the Everyman is looking at alternative ways of raising its own revenue, too, and at least the new venue can play its own part. Artistic director Gemma Bodinetz told the BBC,

We had no alternative sources of raising money in the old Everyman. One of the things we’ve tried to do in the new building is find rooms that we can hire, we have our own restaurants now, so we’re looking continually for ways we can raise money above and beyond subsidy.

The London Theatre Workshop, of course, has no subsidy at all – only the labours of its army of volunteers. But I’m struck by something Bodinetz also said when she was asked if she’d be able to afford to put on plays that will do the new building justice, that makes me think that the two venues have a lot in common:

Of course, I don’t have a choice, do I? Basically what you need is some actors and some lighting. It is almost Shakespearean in its simplicity. It requires energy, lifeblood and passion, and that was always the Everyman.

London Theatre Workshop only came about because of energy, lifeblood and passion, too, as artistic director Ray Rackham sought to find a theatrical home, close to his actual home. He lives locally, and five years ago gave up his career as a lawyer to pursue his passion to make theatre. And after directing a series of musicals (especially by Sondheim, at places like Barons Court and the Pleasance), he finally chanced upon a pub with a disused upstairs function room, reached via a tall spiral staircase, on Eel Brook Common in Fulham.

As luck would have it, the pub was in the midst of its own re-branding and rebuilding. So he went hand in hand with them to establish a brand-new space in a smart new pub. Not that it is without history: the pub was originally licensed in 1830 and rebuilt in 1892, according to information on Whatpub.com.

It’s a very different take on your usual pub theatre, like the White Bear or King’s Head, where the lived-in grubbiness of the pub continues into the auditorium. Here, by contrast, the pub is the sort of place where they offer to recharge your mobile phones for you, and even sell ace cakes alongside coffee and full meals.

The theatre itself is a stunning little boutique space. Rackham told me that he’s toiled for six long weeks (along with a dozen helpers) to convert it into the gleaming space we see now – and even slept there on a few occasions as he did so.

All great theatre is built on this kind of necessity. He has poured his heart, soul and labour into it – and it shows. The same is true of the debut show he has is directing there, Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days. It’s a show he first saw in its off-Broadway production, produced by Roundabout Theatre Company in 2009; but it was actually first produced in London the year before in another pub theatre production at the Finborough, where I reviewed it for The Stage here.

The Finborough, of course, is one of London’s longest-established and most important of all pub theatres, again kept afloat on the passion and commitment of artistic director Neil McPherson. It feels neat that the London Theatre Workshop has opened with a show that was first seen there. I hope it proves to be just as successful.

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