Review: Where’s My Seat? (The New Bush Theatre at the old Shepherd’s Bush Library)

Apparently “tomorrow” was a bit of dream-promising, just a tiny bit of planning beyond my means.  Sadly, I did write a long and glorious review of the first show we saw (a week ago), but it’s gone the way of all mortal (and unsaved by Blogger) things and disappeared to lands unknown.  Let me try an exercise in resurrection….

It’s a week we’ve been in London now, and we’ve seen as many plays as we’ve been here days.  Bliss, really, is what it is: dramaturgical bliss.  We’d been here for less than 36 hours when we frolicked blithely off to our first show (well, I frolicked, while D merely galumphed in my shadow) at the brand new Bush Theatre at the old Shepherd’s Bush Library.

The space not so much brand new, in fact, as half-born. It’s a no-frills evening in a space brought up to code, but not yet transformed into a professional theatre.  You walk in to scraped-clean rooms covered in mad aspirational scribblings - “Bookshelves here,” “We’d love it if people donated plays for the library here…,” “Fill,” “Widen?” - and fanciful sketches of an odd country club future with wood-burning stoves and grandfather clocks that are (for the present) merely outlines on the wall.

“The bar is made of cardboard,” says D, and it is - of piles of small, cardboard boxes, precariously placed.  Every part of the half-finished space begs for your input - starting with the staff, who ask for suggestions, however “silly,” about the new building (so much vaster than their old theatre, around the corner and above the pub).  Just write us a post-it note, they say, and that’s when we begin to notice that little yellow suggestions line the walls (“Love the cardboard bar,” one exclaims, “but how do you keep it DRY?”).  Some couldn’t wait for the post-it pad to come round, and wrote directly on the walls, child-like wickedness fusing with the helpful impulse.

The sills of the lobby are lined with playtexts, casually stacked, from the history of the old pub theatre.  It makes my fingers itch.

The evening promises us three short plays featuring three different theatre arrangements (in-the-round, thrust, end-on).  To allow for this experiment, the crew valiantly shifted the seating and staging drastically during long intermissions, and we were urged to spend the time exploring the upper floors and backstage spaces of this old library in the process of becoming a theatre. Every nook is filled with exercises in crowd-sourcing: Should the Bush do a musical? (Yes, the world needs more small, avant-garde musicals.) Where do you come from? (Los Angeles, Nova Scotia) What is the theatre? (A seeing place, a dancing space) What style of seats do you like best? (Green plush benches!) Most people took the opportunity to leave post-its asking for "Working toilets, please!" or "(Organic) cider at the bar," but D left a note filled with microscopic instructions for setting up the most versatile lighting grid.

All in all, a fascinating piece of environmental-theatre-meets-community-crowdsourcing.  But the intermissions weren’t, strictly speaking, the main theatrical event.  Several of the plays themselves were, unfortunately, more half-formed than the theatre itself.  Perhaps they were overburdened by ambition and constraints.  The playwrights started with a long line of props donated by the National Theatre, ever-so-easily explained items like a giant strawberry and a necklace of fingers, props that had to be integrated over the course of the short script.  Then they had to grapple with a series of mandatory stage directions by the likes of Michael Grandage and Alan Ayckbourn that would form the spine of the play. These were paraded before us with Brechtian glee before the start of each piece. Ayckbourn’s stretched for three pages - so long that they were obliged (with a wink) to give them to us as a programme-handout rather than reading them aloud, as was their wont.   Ideally, constraints like these force authors to feats of bravura ingenuity; here the constraints never became organic structures of the plays, giving them instead the jerky awkwardness of a marionette.

It's how new playwrights are made.
The first two plays opted for farcical comedy as a way of explaining away these mechanical shifts of prop-driven plot. But if you’re going to play something this broadly, you need to make it sharp as hell, and this is a feat that only Nina Sosanya manages completely among the quite skilled group of actors.  The last play of the evening, Jack Thorne’s “Red Car, Blue Car,” opts for a wholly different tone - a surreal juxtaposition of two narratives traveling in different directions to the same, chilling narrative point. I’m reminded of that famously palindromic Michel Gondry video in which a split screen shows backward motion on one side and forward motion on the other, until the characters meet in the middle and switch directions.  The somber tone of Thorne’s play absorbs the oddity of props and stage directions better (his last one, provided by Josie Rourke, is “She does something no one has ever done before.  She does it again.”), because it takes them less literally.

So the plays, despite the whimsy of their beginnings and the strength of their casts (Francesca Annis, I adore thee), are not in general of the quality I generally associate with the old Bush.  But that’s not really the draw or the delight of this evening out.  The space, the space’s the thing….