The Bush Theatre, as you may know, is a critical foundation stone under London’s cultural world – though you may not in fact know it if your patch is more Shaftesbury Avenue than Shepherd’s Bush. For 39 years it has championed new writing and nurtured promising actors, taking programming risks to give a platform to talented souls early in their theatrical careers. The walls of the theatre are lined with pictures of now famous actors or now famous plays that the Bush sponsored back in the day. (It took me a minute to recognise an almost teenage looking Alan Rickman reclining louchely in a publicity photo.)
Those walls, however, are not where they used to be. The old location was rather overshadowed by the charmless Shepherd’s Bush Empire and its touts, but the Bush now has classier room to breathe in a new setting around the corner on Uxbridge Road. The theatre is taking over the Shepherd’s Bush Library, and they are creating the new space in characteristically exploratory and inclusive style – by daring to put on three new plays in the unfinished building, and asking visitors to give feedback on how it should polish its edges. And not meekly solicited ‘do please send us an email’ feedback, but whopping great ‘here’s a marker pen and write on the walls – no really, go on’ feedback. Surfaces are marked with artistically proposed structural alterations (‘knock through arch here’), which are in turn surrounded by respectful comments (‘I’m not sure – I rather like it the way it is’). The issue of paper towels vs. Dyson dryers is remarkably hotly debated in bathroom graffiti. And more profoundly, the audience is asked how it prefers the plays themselves to be staged. Each of the three plays sees the audience sitting in different formations – Thrust, In the Round and End On. Stagehands scramble in intervals to reshape the stage area as we lazily sip glasses of white wine, so that we get a chance to experience all three and vote at the end of the evening for our preferred set-up. Hence, “Where’s My Seat? Ah, it’s now on the other side of the stage”. (I voted for Thrust, for what it’s worth.)
Well, actually, in one of the two breaks, we did more than sip wine. We were sent on a tour of the building, from top to bottom, with 10 different stations where we got to answer questions such as: ‘what is theatre?’, ‘should the Bush do a musical?’, ‘reserved or unreserved seating?’ and the all-encompassing ‘what would you like the new Bush to be?’ Post-it notes, marker pens and coloured sticky dots helped people express their views. On the way, I wrote a bit of a play on a piece of paper hanging from the ceiling, and finished a bit of a crossword puzzle on the wall. Obviously, I loved this, as did everyone else. It’s well known in experimental psychology that giving people the chance to shape an outcome dramatically increases their attachment to it – people value a lottery ticket on which have chosen their own numbers around 5-10 times as much as one where they have been allocated the numbers. So this decision to involve the audience in shaping the future space of the Bush is extremely smart, as well as quirky.
And as is typical of the Bush, the evening was not only smart and quirky, but enjoyably high quality. I won’t labour it since the run finished yesterday, but the three plays were all special in their own way: Deirdre Kinahan’s surreal ‘The Fingers of Faversham’; Jack Thorne’s poignant ‘Red Car, Blue Car’; Tom Wells’s surreal and poignant ‘Fossils’. The fluid cast of six actors was directed into their different formations by Tamara Hervey, and included truly big names such as Francesca Annis, Nina Sosanya and Hugo Speer. Each piece was built around nine bizarre props from the National Theatre’s dusty vaults (ranging from a large strawberry to a stuffed dog) and subject to challenging stage directions by Alan Ayckbourn, Michael Grandage and Bush Artistic Director Josie Rourke – giving the audience a sense of transparency in the artistic process. A neat parallel with the transparency of the process of building the physical environment.
The place will open fully in the autumn, and it will go from strength to strength in its new home. But do go to see it in its current delightfully inchoate form if you can – and don’t forget to express your views on the bar snacks.
Check out the Bush Theatre at http://www.bushtheatre.co.uk