There are 39 shows playing in London’s West End, compared with just 24 on Broadway, but for the real breadth of the London legit scene, you have to look to the thriving Off West End houses.
Two of those venues — the Bush Theater and the Finborough Theater — epitomize the diversity of the London theater scene, and their high profiles ensure that they’re closely watched by legiters all over the city.
As of last month, the Bush has a new a.d. in Madani Younis, following in the footsteps of Josie Rourke, who exited to become the topper of the Donmar Warehouse. The company also has a new home on Shepherd’s Bush Green, with versatile theater spaces, offices and a large, comfortable bar in a dramatically reconfigured library building designed by the U.K.’s leading theater architect, Steve Tompkins of Haworth-Tompkins.
For the preceding 40 years, from cramped, 80-seat quarters above a notoriously unfriendly pub, the Bush competed with the Royal Court as London’s foremost theater for new writers. Its list of debuts of early works by leading British stage and screen scribes includes Joe Penhall, Bryony Lavery and Alexi Kaye Campbell, as well as U.S. names such as David Rabe, Tony Kushner and Neil LaBute.
But Younis’ ambitious new season looks forward, not back, with work that stretches well beyond London, as well as a co-development initiative with film and TV producing orgs.
Younis will direct the world premiere of “Chalet Lines” by Lee Mattinson. A comedy about five generations of women who have been going to the same holiday camp since 1961, it is produced in association with Newcastle’s Live Theater, based in the northeast England.
Another production is Sabrina Mahfouz’s solo performance “Dry Ice,” about a 24-year-old stripper and 18 other characters, co-developed and helmed by U.S. director-actor David Schwimmer (“Friends”) in what is believed to be a first: direction via Skype. The season will also include the world premiere of “Fear,” the first play by BAFTA-winning writer-director Dominic Savage, whose five-episode drama “Love Life” will air on primetime BBC1 in May.
Noting the commissioning execs in film and TV have become more risk averse, Younis has founded a co-development initiative between the Bush and Kudos Film & Television, producers of BBC hits “Spooks” and “Life on Mars.” “We want to encourage more fluid movement between the two mediums,” he says.
The Finborough, meanwhile, continues under Neil McPherson, who took over the 50-seat house in 1999, and has turned it into a major success story. The venue is playing host to the first London production in 50 years of Sutton Vane’s drama of moral responsibility, “Outward Bound.” The 1923 play predates J.B. Priestley’s startlingly similar but more famous “An Inspector Calls” by two decades. Beautifully played in Louise Hill’s ideally pitched production, the play is part of the venue’s hugely successful ReDiscoveries Season.
Previously unearthed gems include last year’s “Accolade,” a forgotten drama by Emlyn Williams about private life and public morality. It netted director Blanche McIntyre the Critics’ Circle award for promising newcomer, plus talk of a transfer to the National Theater. The rights are now with producers Nicola Seed, Michael McCabe and Joseph Smith, who are exploring a West End transfer.
The Finborough’s track record with new plays also has helped solidify the theater’s rep. The org earned a remarkable eight kudos at the recent Off West End Awards.
Unlike the Bush, which receives £450,000 ($712,000) from Arts Council England, the Finborough receives no public subsidy, surviving on box office and donations. The sole full-time paid staff member is McPherson; a technical manager works part-time, and the rest are volunteers. Actors work on profit-share — which isn’t much for a monthlong run with a $23.80 average top price.
So how has the Finborough managed to survive and thrive?
“It’s the artistic policy,” McPherson says. “It can be a pain, of course. But chasing specific plays, maintaining quality control and adhering strictly to the policy gives the place an identity.”
In fact, these two houses help give Off West End an identity.