West London’s theatre scene is one to watch in early 2016. Here the artistic directors of the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, Lyric Hammersmith and Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush reveal what plays will take to the stage this season
Words: Will Gore
West London’s theatre scene is currently thriving with three of our major venues – the Orange Tree, the Lyric and the Bush – staging some of the most exciting productions that the capital has seen in the last couple of years. All three venues have recently announced their new seasons and it’s fair to say 2016 is shaping up very nicely for local theatre-lovers.
Under Artistic Director Paul Miller, Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre has gone from strength to strength in the last 18 months, with the high point surely being Pomona, a dark and provocative play that won a deserved transfer to the National Theatre and has proved to be one of the most talked about productions of recent times.
Miller, who took over from the venue’s founding artistic director Sam Walters in 2014, is hoping his upcoming season of two new plays and two revivals will achieve similar success to that which met Pomona and other Orange Tree productions he’s previously programmed including Deborah Bruce’s domestic drama The Distance and the revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses. He calls the new season ‘a classic Orange Tree mix’ and if there’s any pressure to replicate the kind of success that’s already been achieved, Miller insists he’s fine with it. ‘It’s a nice pressure to have, but of course, nothing will be like Pomona so nothing will follow the same path, nor would you ever want to get into a routine,’ he says.
The new plays in the first season of 2016 are by a pair of talented emerging playwrights; Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone (14 January to 20 February) is a drama about the struggles of a gay man in Uganda, while Brad Birch’s The Brink (7-30 April) is, according to Miller, a ‘very funny, compelling and disturbing story about a young school teacher’. They are joined in the programme by revivals of another early Shaw play, The Philanderer (12 May to 25 June), and a relatively more recent work, German Skerries (3 March to 2 April), by Putney resident Robert Holman, which was first performed in the 70s. ‘I’ve been a long-term fan of Robert’s, but he’s also very influential on younger playwrights,’ says Miller. ‘It seemed important to stage one of his early plays, and this is a seminal one, which was on at the Bush in 1977. It continues a sequence of things we’re doing which is looking at the neglected early work of important contemporary writers.’
The desire to give recent plays a second life is one that Sean Holmes, Artistic Director over at Hammersmith’s Lyric Theatre, shares. He will direct the first show in the theatre’s 2016 season, a revival of Herons (15 January to 13 February) by the venue’s Artistic Associate Simon Stephens. This edgy play about how inner city kids can get trapped in a cycle of violence, and featuring a cast of young actors, was first seen at the Royal Court back in 2001 and Holmes is confident it’s ripe for restaging. ‘I saw the play when it was first on and loved it,’ he says. ‘I’m now a good friend of Simon’s, but that was my first introduction to his writing. It blew me away with its honesty and passion.’
The fact that the cast is made up mainly of youngsters means Herons provides a neat follow-up to the hugely successful production of Bugsy Malone, which also had a cast of young performers, that packed out the Lyric in 2015. The focus on youth, Holmes tells me, is no accident. The theatre recently opened its state of the art extension, the Reuben Foundation Wing, which will as the months and years go on, allow its education and outreach work to flourish. ‘Bugsy Malone was a great showcase for showing how we are expanding our work with young people and Herons is doing something similar, albeit in a very different way,’ adds Holmes.
Putting a Lyric season together, he says, relies on programming shows that have a ‘contrasting energy’ and with that very much in mind, Herons will be followed by a return of the critically acclaimed version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (19 February to 19 March) that was a hit back in 2011, packed as it is with anarchic action and music. After Dream, there’s another change of energy in the shape of Pleasure (11-14 May) and 4.48 (23-28 May), two Royal Opera House productions that will be on show in W6 due to refurbishments in taking place in Covent Garden. ‘It’s great for the Opera House audience to experience the Lyric, but we are also getting the Lyric audience to experience opera and see what they make of it,’ Holmes says.
Also bringing in work from outside is the Lyric’s near neighbour The Bush. The theatre, which is now firmly established in its home in the old Shepherd’s Bush library, is currently preparing to welcome Pink Mist (21 January 21 to 13 February), a play by Owen Sheers about soldiers returning from Afghanistan, that was first seen at the Bristol Old Vic.
‘We’re really excited about having Pink Mist on at the Bush,’ says Artistic Director Madani Younis. ‘There are a lot of plays that respond to the idea of returning servicemen and women from war, but with Pink Mist the idea of how the story is told and how its physicalised makes it an exceptional piece of theatre. It’s a beautiful piece of writing with a beautiful poetry and lyricism to the work.’
After Pink Mist comes Right Now (23 March 23 to 16 April), a character-driven relationship drama, written by Catherine-Anne Toupin and directed by Michael Boyd, that Younis is reluctant to talk too much about in case he gives away any spoilers. It’s a co-production between the Bush, Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and Bath’s Ustinov Studio and what Younis does say is that working with other theatres is a vital part of the Bush’s ethos and ongoing plans. ‘I came to the Bush having worked in the regions for a number of years and the opportunity to share work from across the country is really important,’ he adds.
So, from gritty new writing to fresh takes on classic plays via a little bit of opera, there’s plenty to go and see in the coming months – the buzz around west London’s theatre scene doesn’t look like fizzling out anytime soon.