Mark Shenton’s top venues: Theatre Royal Stratford East
Theatre Royal Stratford East dubs itself “a people’s theatre”, but for once, it is not an idle aspiration but a reality: this is a theatre that really belongs to its community, both on stage in the stories it tells and the audiences it tells them to. It has long stood proud, ever since it was first built in 1894, as a venue at the centre of the life of Stratford, and has even more recently attracted a cultural hub around it, with the opening of Stratford Circus Arts Centre in 2001 and Picturehouse cinema, both opposite it.
Stratford East, of course, has itself been undergoing an unprecedented period of regeneration and gentrification, ever since the 2012 Olympics made its home in the area, the giant Westfield Shopping Centre opened across the road and thousands of new homes were built in tower blocks around it (and are still going up).
That makes this particular little historical spot all the more valuable, as a connection to the past and a signpost to the future. It’s a place that has changed (and challenged) assumptions about working-class theatre in its time, and proved that everyone has a story tell and provided a place to tell them in, most famously of course when Joan Littlewood ran it as the home of her Theatre Workshop Company from 1953, creating such legendary hits as Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and Oh, What A Lovely War, both of which were recently revived here.
Shows such as those put this East End jewel on the West End map, too, when they transferred to town, with casts that included regular Stratford East actors such as Brian Murphy, Victor Spinetti, Barbara Windsor, Miriam Karlin, Toni Palmer and Bryan Pringle.
After the death of Littlewood’s partner George Raffles, she left the theatre and moved to France, never to direct again; but her legacy was upheld and continued when first Ken Hill – a protege of hers – took over briefly, then Clare Venables and then Philip Hedley, a former assistant of Littlewood’s, who would run the theatre for a quarter of a century from 1979 to 2004.
Under Hedley, the theatre provided a home for his predecessor Ken Hill with hits such as his version of The Phantom of the Opera (which inspired Lloyd Webber’s) and The Invisible Man (which transferred to the West End), as well as an adaptation of Sweeney Todd by Christopher Bond that was seen by Stephen Sondheim and inspired his musical version. The theatre also became a producing partner with leading black and Asian companies, and would itself originate musicals such as Five Guys Named Moe and The Big Life, both of them featuring black actors that would transfer to the West End. When The Big Life transferred to the West End in 2005, I interviewed its director Clint Dyer, the first black British director to direct a musical in the West End, who told me ruefully: “The wonderful thing about being black in this country is that as a black person you have an amazing opportunity to be the first at a lot of things.”
And Stratford East itself has been the first at a lot of things, too. Kerry Michael, who apprenticed as Hedley’s associate here, took over in 2004, and has continued this theatre’s traditions of developing new musicals, with successes that have included The Harder They Come, which transferred to both the Barbican Centre and the West End, and providing the original London home to National Theatre of Scotland’s co-production Glasgow Girls in 2012 (which has just returned there briefly as part of a new national touring production, reviewed here).
The theatre operates a very full programme of public work, sometimes at surprising venues, such as when the utterly stunning Roadkill (also by Cora Bissett, who conceived Glasgow Girls), about young girls being trafficked for sex, was premiered in a derelict house in nearby Canning Town, and deservedly won the Olivier award for outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre in 2012. But it is also its behind-the-scenes educational work with the community that makes this theatre stand out. It is building the theatremakers of the future, from people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to these kind of opportunities.
Philip Hedley once told me that the interesting thing about the reviews of shows that ran here was that they invariably mention the audience, too – and yes, it is a striking fact that Stratford East audiences are more directly engaged with the work on stage than you usually see. But there’s also something uniquely welcoming about the theatre, too, from the red velvet warmth of its three-level Victorian theatre (now equipped with new seats), to the best jerk chicken being served in its restaurant cafe I’ve ever had outside of Barbados.
Theatre Royal Stratford East
Gerry Raffles Square, London E15
Box Office: 020 8534 0310
Artistic director: Kerry Michael
Executive Director: Deborah Sawyerr
Associate Director: Pooja Ghai
Producer: Bella Rodrigues
Director of development and communications: Sal Goldsmith
Head of Marketing: Hugh Gledhill
Head of Finance: Jane Kortlandt
Technical Manager: Richard Parr
Company and stage manager: Sarah Buik
Box Office Supervisor: Beryl Warner