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The little theatre that thinks big

I t’s the stuff of West End producers’ dreams: a world premiere of a

rare Beckett play, directed by former National Theatre director Trevor Nunn, starring Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins. Yet that’s the billing right now at the West End’s tiny Jermyn Street studio theatre. The 70-seat space is increasingly generating green eyes in theatrical circles for its ability to secure star casting and root out forgotten masterpieces by great playwrights. From being a fringe venue that no one had heard of, suddenly everyone’s talking about it. “The last two years have been extraordinary,” says Jermyn

Street’s artistic director Gene David Kirk. “Now they’ve found us we get The Times, the Telegraph and the Independent in to review our productions. It’s the first time a theatre of our size has been called: ‘The play critics would pay to see.’” This year, the venue was named Fringe Theatre of the Year by

The Stage newspaper. It has also been nominated for the prestigious Peter Brook award. But it was Kirk’s arrival here four years ago that set all this in motion. The theatre hadn’t had an artistic director for a decade, and was only operating as a receiving house when he arrived to put on a production of Gillian Plowman’s dark comedy Crooked Wood. Spotting an opportunity, he talked the management into making his stay permanent. A former RAF logistician who cut his theatrical teeth directing plays in the Royal Airforce Theatrical Association, it’s clear that embarking on a second career has given Kirk an enthusiasm and a drive that belie his 42 years. And it’s perhaps why he doesn’t want to waste time by thinking small. Take his casting for the part of Rita Allmers in Ibsen’s Little Eyolf last year: “We went through our wish list and Imogen Stubbs came up as the right age and sensibility. So, we just called her agent, she met us and came round to see the theatre, and she decided to do it.”

As well as Stubbs, Catherine Cusack and the late Corin Redgrave and Miriam Karlin are among the heavyweights who have graced the Jermyn Street stage in recent times. Ironically, it’s the intimate nature of the venue that attracts the big

talent, says Kirk. “It’s all about bringing them into the space. For so many, that smell of fear walking out onto stage every night is the reason for living when you’re an actor,” he says. “I bring them into the theatre and say: ‘Here’s the scariest thing you’ll ever do – it’s like having people sitting in your living room.’” It was Stubbs who mentioned the Beckett play, All That Fall, as

one that her husband, Trevor Nunn, wanted to direct. “She said it was one Trevor had always wanted to do,” says Kirk. “So I phoned him – I’m cheeky like that – and said, ‘If I can get the rights, will you direct it?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely’. And of course it’s Trevor’s contact book that helped with the casting – he wrote to Michael and Eileen, and they said yes within a week. There was no waiting around like there normally is. They wanted to be involved in it because it’s an event, not just a play.”

As well as the names involved, the main draw for audiences is seeing a piece by a well-known playwright that you will never have seen staged before. Beckett wrote All That Fall – a bleak yet comic tale following an old lady as she travels to pick up her blind husband from the train station – as a radio play for the BBC in the late 1950s. In order to get the rights, Kirk had to convince the Beckett estate that there wasn’t really any difference between people hearing it in the radio studio and watching it in a studio theatre. “Michael and Eileen will be talking into a microphone as if they’re at a live radio airing,” says Kirk. “It’s a wonderful experience that’s both visually and aurally amazing. Trevor will very much concentrate on how everything lands on the ear.” It’s part of an ongoing strategy of Kirk’s to read around the great playwrights and discover dusty gems that will surprise theatre fans. Over the summer, he staged the UK premiere of a forgotten Ibsen drama called St John’s Night – a fairy tale comedy that the playwright wrote when he was an idealistic 18-year-old. The play was slated by critics when Ibsen wrote it, because of his views on nationalism. “He was so hurt by it that he would never allow it to be performed in his lifetime or let it be included in his collected works,” says Kirk. “And there are quite a few Ibsens that come under that category. Oxford University had commissioned these translations but no one knew about them – they were just sitting on shelves. “It’s a light comedy and we don’t know Ibsen for his light comedies. My view is: let’s look at the work before and after writers become big – then you can often work out why they focus on specific themes and motifs in their central work.” So far, it’s an approach that seems to be working for Jermyn

Street. It might be small, but as Kirk puts it: “It’s just about having big dreams.”


All That Fall is at Jermyn Street Theatre from October 9-November 3. Tel: 020 7287 2875.

THEATRE: Nuala Calvi

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