It was quite an evening, at least offstage, at the Bush last night. The theatre has had a year of crises, beginning with the threatened withdrawal of part of their Arts Council grant that they waged a successful fight to retain in the end; but meanwhile the building itself was subject to a series of plumbing leaks and other technical problems when Josie Rourke’s inaugural season as artistic director got underway.
I remember being called up earlier in the day for the press night for Joseph Fiennes’ appearance in 2,000 Feet Away to say they were having problems with a leak and weren’t sure if the performance was going to happen, though it did in the end. But then there followed a post-summer programming gap, when the theatre website looked barren and there was a strange silence emanating from Shepherd’s Bush Green.
Part of the problem was subsequently revealed by the first production of the autumn, when the theatre staged the Broken Space season - a festival of ten short new plays, presented in near or total darkness, as a creative response to working without a lighting grid. But last night the theatre was nearly dark for another reason entirely: Ralf Little, currently starring in 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover At Christmas — a slightly revamped version of their summer sell-out, basically a sketch show on the theme of relationship break-ups scripted by six young playwrights), got stuck in traffic on the M1 motorway, and a courier bike had to be despatched to retrieve him from it and speed him to the theatre.
It meant an hour’s delay on the start time, which is nearly as long as the show itself is - but the audience were patient and a full house was in place when it finally started.
It actually meant I had a more leisurely dinner than I thought I would: I had originally arrived at the Patio restaurant, that glorious Polish eaterie on the Goldhawk Road across the street that Matthew Norman, restaurant critic of The Guardian, has referred to as “a truly magnificent restaurant” and one of his “desert island diners”, and had said to them that I needed to be out in half an hour. The food, of course, was duly out - and delicious - in ten minutes. But I found out about the delay long before I was finished, purely by chance as Josie Rourke came into the restaurant herself - in order to attend a script associates meeting downstairs (yes, the Patio is a wonderfully versatile space - it even doubles up as the theatre’s informal meeting room).
Though she disguised it well, she went a little white when she realised I was in the area to come to the theatre, and its latest crisis would be duly exposed. The theatre had just had its Christmas party that afternoon, so Ewan Thomson - its freelance PR - was also already in the area, so he, too, soon came to join us. It meant that the hour’s delay passed quickly. And the show, though not vintage Bush by any means, does the same thing.
But if the Bush represents a model of triumphing in adversity - and Rourke, for her part, admitted to have been on a steep learning curve over the last embattled year - at least those crises are not of its own making, but are those of a theatre that is being buffeted by external circumstances.
Theatres, of course, have to be used to taking responsibility for criticisms that are honestly expressed - either by professional critics or members of the public - and it is frankly astonishing to find the response of the Tricycle’s marketing director, Elly Hopkins, that she has posted to the West End Whingers’ experience of visiting that theatre to see its current production of Loot last weekend. The Whingers have a long-articulated disdain of unreserved seating policies - and expressed them with their usual aplomb here. Hopkins, however, seems to have taken offence, and replied, “All your comments duly noted, ignored and binned - as the Tricycle is such a ghastly experience for you we would hate to put you through any more agony, so maybe it would be better for your blood pressure if you confined your theatre going to the West End - as your blog implies!”
As Ian Shuttleworth has, in turn, noted, “What kind of representative of a theatre publicly tells a couple of moderately influential bloggers that the venue is interested neither in their patronage nor their feedback, and pretty much advises them to stay away? Did it not occur to you that this might make both you and the Trike look humourless and offhand, even contemptuous? And if you’re not posting on formal behalf of the Tricycle, aren’t they going to be unpleasantly surprised to see the impression you’ve given of them? Such a loss to the Diplomatic Service, Elly…”
As critics like Ian and myself here read, write and contribute to blogs regularly, there’s a lesson to be learnt here that they’re not to be treated with this kind of contempt, and perhaps proves in a stroke that the contempt of the theatre and some of its officers for its audience only starts with its unreserved seating policy, but far from ends with it.