Mark Shenton’s top venues: Menier Chocolate Factory
I kicked off this new series last week with a venue on my doorstep – the Southwark Playhouse. This week I continue with the Menier Chocolate Factory, which is about seven minutes from home.
Yes, I do live within a one mile radius, I reckon, of some of the very best and most interesting theatres in London: I’ve also got Shakespeare’s Globe, the Young Vic, the Old Vic, the National and the Union Theatre within that distance, each of which are likely to feature in future columns here, and their proximity is a big part of what attracted me to Southwark in the first place. (That, and the bear baiting, though in this part of town that takes on a very different meaning to what it did in Shakespearean times. I don’t go anymore, but right beside Blackfriars Bridge is the most famous bear club in London XXL.)
As it happens, XXL used to take place in the railway arches behind the Menier Chocolate Factory, across the car park space in front of the venue. So it felt as if all my needs were being met in one place – I also shared an office in the building directly to the right of the Menier entrance, too, though we’ve since moved to premises around the corner from the Union Theatre.
Few brand-new, entirely unfunded London theatres have ever been put on the map and found their footing quite as fast as the Menier Chocolate Factory did. It scored its first West End transfer with what was only its second in-house show, Fully Committed, within months of its foundation in 2004. Its first musical to transfer to the West End – Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, presented at the Menier in 2005 – would also move on to Broadway (and be nominated for nine Tony awards) in 2008.
In the years since, Sondheim has become a house staple, with Menier productions of A Little Night Music and Merrily We Roll Along also transferring to the West End. The former transferred to Broadway, where it was recast to include Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury and the Menier went on to present the European premiere of Road Show at the theatre in 2011. In 2014, the Menier revived Assassins, with an all-star cast including Broadway actor Aaron Tveit, Catherine Tate, Jamie Parker, Andy Nyman and Mike McShane. It never transferred, but easily could have.
These are just some of the Broadway shows the Menier has returned to sender, taking coals to Newcastle. Another was La Cage Aux Folles, in director Terry Johnson’s significant redux version which was also deluxe in its casting of Douglas Hodge as Albin, opposite Philip Quast at the Menier and Kelsey Grammar on Broadway.
Just this week the Menier’s 2013 new version of the 2006 Broadway musical The Color Purple has transferred back to Broadway, with its dazzling London star Cynthia Erivo reprising her Menier performance. I went to the first Broadway preview earlier this week on Tuesday, and she literally stopped the show in the second act, getting a standing ovation mid-show. She co-stars with Oscar-winning music star Jennifer Hudson, which may help give it some kind of commercial insurance.
Meanwhile 16 Menier shows have transferred to the West End, including the current Bacharach show Close to You (where it has just announced an extension at the Criterion to February 14), while Funny Girl – which is yet to even open – has also announced a transfer to the Savoy after it plays the Menier. That’s some track record for a small (200-seater), entirely independent, completely unsubsidised venue in South London, with a tiny resident staff led by artistic director David Babani, who co-founded the venue with Danielle Tarento, now an independent producer and casting director.
The Menier seems to be a place that inspires creative confidence and reinvention, and keeps springing interesting surprises. It was here that Maria Friedman, long known as a pre-eminent performer of Sondheim shows, made her directorial debut at the helm of one of his shows (Merrily We Roll Along); it was here that Sam West directed a revival of Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice (in a production that transferred to the West End) and also starred in Caryl Churchill’s A Number opposite his dad Timothy West.
In an interview with Babani for The Stage in 2014, he told me:
We’ve had all sorts of people jump across and different things. This industry does too much pigeonholing and I love the opportunity to break down some of those barriers. An important part of what we do is about nurturing and uncovering and stretching talent – as we also try to do with our audiences. We try to nurture them first, then stretch them to come and see things that they wouldn’t otherwise think of seeing. They become loyal to us, and the price point is such that they can afford it, too, and don’t feel like they’ve wasted this month’s budget if they don’t like it. Going to see a show in the West End is so prohibitively expensive, you’re not going to take a risk on something that you’re not sure you’re going to like. At places like us and our peer venues, they might.
The audience is always paramount in Babani’s mind when he is programming the theatre. He also said:
All I’ve ever tried to do is shows that I want to see, and hope that others do, too. In fact, other people wanting to see them is probably the most important factor in deciding whether we are going to do something or not. Over the course of two to three years, we try to do a bit of everything: a bit of classical theatre, some new writing, an old comedy, a thriller, a contemporary musical, an old-fashioned musical. But we always try to do them to the highest standards we can achieve.
I love visiting the Menier, even if I’ve not always loved everything they’ve done there – I gave its last show, Dinner With Saddam, a one-star review, though it has to be said that the reviews ran the gamut of reactions from my one-star to five-stars elsewhere. So you can’t please everyone all of the time.
Babani, in any case, doesn’t try to second guess what critical or audience reactions will be, and what might work. But he loves the eclecticism the space affords him:
The thing I love most about our work is that we’re able to get our shows to all sorts of weird and wonderful places. Because we’re a mid-size venue with 200 seats, we can do one-man shows that can run off and play at 60-seaters, or we can scale up. A show like La Cage Aux Folles started here playing to 180 seats, then went to the West End with 800, Broadway with 1,200, and then it played a big barns on tour in the US that had 3,500 to 4,000 seats. I saw it in Tampa, Florida in a huge theatre, and I could still see elements and decisions that were made at the Menier being carried forward to it.
The same is now true of The Color Purple, which has upscaled from the Menier to a large Broadway house, the Bernard B Jacobs, without sacrificing any of its intensity or intimacy. I obviously can’t review it yet, but I can’t wait to see it again once it opens officially there on December 10.
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