“They kiss reluctantly; they kiss enquiringly; they kiss passionately”
Though the Bush Theatre has gained a huge reputation as one of London’s top fringe theatres, balancing the charm of its intimacy with the severe limitation of the venue perched above a pub in Shepherds Bush has been something of a trial and so the opportunity to relocate to an old library just around the corner was gratefully seized and a new chapter in the Bush’s history commenced. Where’s My Seat offers audiences a preview of what the theatre will become, as it is still under construction and development, as three short plays test-drive the space and feedback from the audience actively sought from compère-for-the-evening Ralf Little.
There’s a real playfulness to Where’s My Seat that is evident from the moment one walks into the old Shepherds Bush Library: the walls are covered with scribbles of what will eventually be there or marked ‘knock through’. The programming also reflects this: 3 playwrights were invited to write short plays, utilising one of three different seating configurations and up to nine of the most random props that had been selected at random from the National Theatre’s archive, but the challenge did not even end there. Three theatrical luminaries were then invited to create a set of challenging stage directions which had to be incorporated into the plays, so outgoing Donmar supremo Michael Grandage, outgoing Bush supremo (and going to replace Grandage) Josie Rourke and Alan Ayckbourn did their best (Ayckbourn displaying something of a lack of humour about his efforts though, providing three pages worth where the others had about 6 each!)
Deirdre Kinahan’s The Fingers of Faversham was probably the most fun of the playlets, featuring the entire company and the silliest of set-ups, incorporating several of the wackier props, as an am-dram society welcomes a new director who takes their production of Wind in the Willows and turns it into an overblown psychodrama about class struggles and homosexual repression, allowing the group to explore their worst theatrical excesses to frequently hilarious effect. Nina Sosanya’s Denise was excellent as the touchy-feely director using the most gruesome necklace ever seen and Hugh Skinner as the needy young man playing a gay singing Ratty and Richard Cordery’s fan-of-spanking Toady were also great fun.
That was played in thrust but during the first interval the seats were reconfigured in the round for Tom Well’s Fossils. This was essentially a two hander with Francesca Annis and Richard Cordery as two old friends who meet after a long time and reminisce about what romance might have happened between them and the life they might have led. Again, the absurd worked its way into the play through the props in a most funny but touchingly lovely way as well and with actors of the calibre of these two, this was an utterly subtle but true delight.
The final piece, Red Car Blue Car by Jack Thorne, shifted the tone into a darker place with the most serious of the plays and less obvious concession to the complete randomness of the prop selection. And despite it being the dramatically strongest and more interestingly written of the three, one might even say that this could have been written for any space anywhere whereas the others were directly linked to the challenges set, but it was still highly enjoyable, essentially another two-hander this time with Hugo Speer and Nina Sosanya whose everyday stories intersect in a shocking way, Speer in particular shining here with a heartbreaking turn.
That was performed end-on with a raised stage which was probably my least favourite of the configurations as it didn’t feel a natural fit into the room nor did it really maximise the potential for using the space and creating the intimacy that the thrust and in-the-round productions were able to generate through the proximity of the actors. There’s an opportunity to take a tour around the building which I highly recommend as going backstage and all around is lots of fun and a great way to spend the second interval which is the longer as it takes a while to get the seats prepped for the last show.
Where’s My Seat may have seemed an unusual way to open a theatre’s tenure in a new building but it is an extremely successful one which provides a unique opportunity to follow the journey of a theatre in transition but also experiment along with them and actually influence the way the Bush will work in the new space. It is an ingenious way of reaffirming the connection with existing Bush audiences but also in reaching out to new people and the local community who will be vital in soaking up the extra capacity at the new venue. It’s a brave and bold statement, but one that really works and should lay the basis for a very interesting inaugural Autumn/Winter season.