The Rosemary Branch – one of fringe theatre’s finest – is 20 in 2016 and is home to one of Islington’s finest double acts

In an area blessed with so many great theatres, the Rosemary Branch has always stood out for me as an opportunity to see great actors without all the glitz and glamour. Almeida may get the A-listers, and Sadler’s Wells the stars of dance, but Rosemary Branch consistently stages great productions – and also has a wonderful double act behind what we see.

It was nigh on 20 years ago that Cecilia Darker and Cleo Sylvestre came together as joint Artistic Directors to run the theatre output, but back then the former – having been a teacher for 20 years – simply saw it as an education project. ‘The drama school graduates that got together and formed their own companies were very similar to my ballet students and I felt it was my job to give them a safe and supportive platform to practice and experiment with what they were passionate about,’ Cecilia reveals.

The Resident: A supreme double act: Cecilia Darker and Cleo SylvestreA supreme double act: Cecilia Darker and Cleo Sylvestre

Cleo, an actress of some repute with a background story that would make great theatre in itself, found it very illuminating to be on the other side of the fence. ‘It was brilliant to have the Rosie as a base,’ she enthuses. ‘I reconnected with many people I used to work with, as well as making lots of new contacts. Today I regard The Rosie as an old, reliable friend. I frequently have acting jobs in the theatre, which means I am out of London sometimes for months, but I’m always delighted to return. So many pub theatres feel isolated to the pub itself, but that’s not so at The Rosie where the locals are very supportive.’

‘We know our audiences a lot better now,’ adds Cecilia, ‘and we know what will probably work, what has a good chance of working, and what absolutely won’t work given the aesthetic of the space. We are more discriminating these days and do our very best to make every production a win/win situation so that everyone has a realistic chance of achieving their personal goals.’

Asked about the highlights over the past two decades, there’s a real mix of suggestions from the two: their first opera 15 years ago that led to the development of Charles Court Opera; working with the young people from Islington Community Theatre for three summers in a row before they went on to sell out The National Theatre; and seeing some of their actors head off to the RSC, West End or even star in Game of Thrones. With so much behind them, what can we expect in their anniversary year? ‘We are asking 20 writers to give us a play each for 20 staged readings,’ Cecilia starts the hype. ‘We are also known for our excellent reinterpretations of classics and our Artistic Associate, Bryony J. Thompson, will be adapting and directing a new production of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Clementine the Living Fashion Doll has just been playing to packed houses over our Christmas season and we are hoping she will be back to help us celebrate with another wacky and glamour filled show, possibly with Honey B Mama [the band that ultra talented Cleo fronts]… Now there’s a thought.’

The Resident: The theatre at the Rosemary Branch works in perfect unison with the pubThe theatre at the Rosemary Branch works in perfect unison with the pub

WORDS Mark Kebble

Rosemary Branch Theatre & Pub, 2 Shepperton Road N1 3AT; 020 7704 6665;