When you think of theatre today, your mind no doubt drifts to that of the West End. Grand musicals, family pantos and over-done Shakespeare plays dominate the art today, but what many don’t realise is a wealth of new, exciting and vibrant theatre exists if you venture only slightly out of the West End…
Somehow, the smallest of venues manage to put on the most interesting shows. They have the freedom to push the boundaries of what theatre can showcase, experimenting with themes and creatives that the West End doesn’t risk. Often, it’s their shows that start to gain traction and popularity, generating prestige and transferring to the West End, Broadway and beyond as full on productions.
Foxfinder, currently starring Game of Thrones‘ Iwan Rheon at the Ambassador Theatre, first found it’s beginning at the Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court in 2011. The 50 seat venue transformed into a dark, dystopian future where the English countryside was on the brink of destruction, as Tom Byam Shaw portrayed William Bloor, a young Foxfinder desperate to track down the deadly animal upsetting the status quo.
Foxfinder isn’t the first of Finborough’s productions that’s become a hit. In 2008, Nicholas de Jongh’s Plague Over England transferred to the Duchess Theatre in the West End. Cornelius, a show from 2012 written by one of Britain’s greatest dramatists, J. B. Priestley, went on to become a huge success off Broadway in New York and It Is Easy To Be Dead, written by Finborough’s very own Artist Director Neil McPherson was nominated for 7 OffWestEnd Awards and an Olivier Award, and is currently touring Scotland.
Many of the shows the Finborough puts on begin as part of their Vibrant Theatre season, a festival of Finborough playwrights and a chance for experimentation. In the ten years Finborough has been doing their Vibrant Theatre season, well over a hundred new plays have been introduced and twenty four have gone on to become full productions including Black Jesus, Bull and Acceptance.
We sat down with McPherson to discuss Finborough, it’s reputation for being at the forefront of contemporary theatre and how they manage to capture these thought provoking shows.
“[It’s] anything that’s good, really. In the end, we are just looking for good plays,” says McPherson, although there are a few caveats that Finborough imposes: “nothing written before 1800 and most importantly not done in London, preferably not done in the UK in the last 25 years.”
“We’re a 50-seat pub theatre in Earl’s Court, there’s no point in doing Hamlet when if you wait 6 months, the Aldwych will do it with a budget of 20 million and Benedict Cumberbatch. We do either absolutely brand new plays or plays that are very old and haven’t been done in 80 or 90 years. Never anything you can see elsewhere.”
The point of theatre is ultimately, to tell stories. Whilst we may have our beloved favourites that we like to watch over and over again, progression comes from change and change comes from new and unique takes, however the world of theatre seems wont to become stuck in a rut and put on the same few shows written by the same few old white men until the end of time.
“Nice middle-class plays for nice middle-class audiences – we try hard not to do that. [We want] to provide voices that you don’t get to hear very often. It’s essential, but there is always a danger of preaching to the converted.“Neil McPherson
Already this year, Finborough have explored a variety of provacative shows, from Booby’s Bay in Spring, covering second-home ownership and how it’s destroying the countryside of Cornwall, to Rachel Boulton’s Exodus, a play from Welsh theatre company Motherlode and most recently, Anahera, an exciting European debut from New Zealander Emma Kinane as she tells the story of a missing child and a Māori social worker.
Having taken on the position of Finborough’s Artistic Director in 1999, McPherson has become one of the most revered and respected voices in Fringe Theatre, and “one of the most unsung of all major artistic directors in Britain”. Through his years at the Finborough, McPherson has produced over 200 productions and has been awarded a plethora of accolades from Best Artistic Director several times over to his recent Olivier nomination for It Is Easy To Be Dead.
McPherson’s foray into the arts began when he trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, although “it wasn’t royal when I was there,” he laughs when questioned about how that’s affected his work as an Artistic Director.
“The actors always come first. Obviously the writer is important and the whole thing is important, but it does mean perhaps that you think about the actors a lot more than if you were a director or come from another background. Most of our plays are successful because of the quality of the acting.”
For ten years, Finborough’s Vibrant season has continued to present tomorrow’s plays today, paving way for a new generation of theatre, playwrights and actors to continue one of the oldest and greatest arts known to man.
But Vibrant is teetering on the edge of some huge changes in how fringe theatre works – or doesn’t work as McPherson put it. As the climate becomes increasingly untenable, it could mean the end of some of the most innovative and refreshing theatre in the country, triggering a knock-on effect that could dramatically alter the landscape of modern theatre.
When you think of theatre, you think of the West End, but the shows of the West End begin outside of it. Some of the biggest shows start at little 50-seater rooms like the Finborough, intimate and immersive and unlike anything you can experience elsewhere. The unique experience offered by them is unmissable for any true theatre fan, so make sure to support your local pub theatres like Finborough.
The Vibrant season continues tomorrow night (October 18th) with The Chief, written by Tim Jeal and directed by Simon Greiff, carrying on with TERP, Relativity – The Einstein Musical and Anahera next week. Grab tickets below and while you’re at it, consider supporting one of London’s most acclaimed Off West End theatres by joining their Friend Scheme.