Where’s My Seat?, Bush Theatre

Friday 17th June 2011

Nina Sosanya in Where’s My Seat? Photo: Manuel Harlan
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They say that moving home is always traumatic. So the Bush Theatre in west London must be feeling a wee bit fragile because it has recently upped sticks and taken up residence in the Old Shepherds Bush Library building just around the corner from its historic, but rather leaky former home. Yet it’s typical of this spunky venue that it celebrates the first stages of the move with not only a trilogy of short plays, but also with an invitation to the audience to comment on its new space.

As an event, Where’s My Seat? is like a housewarming party with the builders still in. Artistic director Josie Rourke has invited audiences to have a look at the conversion work and to enjoy a preview of the space. The atmosphere is dusty, the lighting rig is elementary; on one side the building’s bare brick is exposed, on another the windows are boarded up. Some walls have huge scribbles on them which tell us they are ready for demolition; others say things like “Grid between these beams”. The seats are plastic chairs. But the overall atmosphere of this “work in progress” is fun.

As a piece of theatre, Where’s My Seat? is a trilogy of new 25-minute plays by three young talents. In the first, The Fingers of Faversham by Deirdre Kinahan, a trendy director, Denise, takes over a local community theatre in order to present her version of The Wind in the Willows as a tract against sexual repression. This is both a black comedy (it features a necklace made up of severed fingers) and a lively satire on theatrical clichés. The second play, Fossils by Tom Wells, is a surreal and warmhearted account of the meeting of Helen, a lonely mature woman, and Philip, her estranged friend who now lives many miles away. But by far the best is the final piece, Red Car, Blue Car by Jack Thorne, whose singular voice suddenly makes the other two efforts look weak. This observant, wry and creepy story of how the lives of a guilty man and a pregnant woman collide is excruciating, dangerous and full of deep feeling. It’s also a reminder of how much new-writing theatres depend on developing strong playwrights.

Yet in keeping with the essentially playful nature of the evening, all three playlets have a light touch, and were commissioned with the stipulation that they use some of nine amazing props from the National Theatre (a huge strawberry and a blue toy airplane) and follow stage directions from people such as Alan Ayckbourn. This gives a delightfully surreal edge to the proceedings and generates a fair bit of laughter. There’s a palpable sense of pleasure, and the company — directed by Tamara Harvey and led by Francesca Annis, Richard Cordery and Nina Sosanya — is nimble, charming and welcoming.

Of course, the Bush has a long way to go before the building is finally finished. Although audience opinions about the different uses of the space are actively solicited, the venue still has some £200,000 to raise and the project won’t be complete for another three years. Because Rourke will depart for her new job at the Donmar Warehouse soon after the new theatre opens to the public in October, it is still too early to deliver a verdict on this new venture. The central question is whether its space can retain the intensity of experience and the high production values that characterised the old Bush. So, until the autumn, all we can really do is wish the project well.

This review first appeared on The Arts Desk 

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