A night out on the Latimer Industrial Estate probably doesn’t sound too inviting, yet it is home to an excitingly ambitious theatre that has just celebrated its first birthday.
The address might seem off-putting, but don’t be deterred; it’s actually a residential road on one side with modest brick units on the other. The Playground Theatre occupies number eight and just to add another twist to the setting, the building was formerly a London Transport depot. Just across the Westway from this unlikely location is the Westfield London shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush. That’s a bonus, as patrons who enjoy a pre-theatre dinner will find restaurants there catering to all tastes.
With the last bus having departed, actor and local entrepreneur Peter Tate passed by the cavernous hollow that remained and immediately saw its potential. In 2001 his initials plans turned the space into a workshop where artists could function collaboratively on creative endeavours, experiment with new ideas, develop material and bring the most promising to fruition as completed works. They could be like kids in a playground, exploring, having fun, trying stuff out and making friends. What he didn’t want was for creative people to feel pressured into manufacturing commercial successes. Inevitably in that nurturing environment the successes came anyway, along with widespread appreciation and acclaim.
Works from these humble origins were later performed at the Young Vic, The Barbican, The Hampstead Theatre, The West Yorkshire Playhouse and elsewhere. Terrific Electric was given an award by the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust and short films also rolled out. Production soon surpassed the number of available outlets for the many projects that merited further exposure. To overcome the frustration this created and carry the venue to another level, the next chapter in its development was heralded.
Tate installed performance quality sound and lighting to create a theatre that would allow for multiple configurations of staging and seating accommodating up to 200 people in some 230m². Its innovative and creative heart was to remain, but now, as a fully functioning performance venue, it would be able to present original work and serve as a cultural centre within the local community. The project received a major boost in 2017 when Anthony Biggs, former Artistic Director of the Jermyn Street Theatre, joined with Tate and together they launched the Playground Theatre. This year it received a £5000 input from The Theatres Protection Fund to further improve safety and general facilities; a much-appreciated donation as it currently receives no Arts Council funding. It does, however, have actors Celia Imrie and Cherie Lunghi as patrons, along with dancer Lynn Seymour.
Reflecting on the last twelve months Tate remarks, “The saying that comes to mind about creating the theatre is 'Fools rush in where wise men never dare to tread'. No doubt if I had thought about it too much - the seemingly insurmountable obstacles - then I probably wouldn't have pushed the button, but I’m glad I did”. In just one year the folly has clearly paid off, with the venue becoming established as a major player amongst London theatres. It always attracted significant figures, including the late Henryk Baranowski, winner of Poland’s and Russia’s top award as best director, Salius Varnus from Lithuania, Hideki Noda, who was appointed artistic director at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in 2009 and Marcello Magni of the UK’s Complicité. Its enhanced status will provide further the opportunities for the Playground to build on its existing international reputation.
The breadth of material it espouses is evidenced in the works put on during the first year, which in addition to theatre also included hosting Murmuration, nine life-sized bronzes by sculptor Josie Spencer suspended at different levels around the space.
The season opened with Terry d’Alfonso’s Picasso, which heads to the USA in 2019. Jane Austen’s work was brought to life in a new adaptation of Persuasion and was followed by the sharply contrasting depictions of military life and accounts of PTSD in Soldier On, which transferred to The Other Palace. This in turn was balanced with a seasonal Christmas production of Little Prince. One-off performances and festivals were also welcomed. Out of Chaos presented their Two Man Macbeth for one night only. Pianist and composer Rosey Chan, performed against a Mike Figgis multi-media installation for just one day. Lasting slightly longer, the theatre put on something of a neighbourhood party with a free two-day event featuring theatre, music, comedy, performance art, spoken word and food. Entitled Rebelfest, a coup was to host the world premiere reading of Steven Berkoff's new play Weinstein.
Gregory Evan’s Shirleymander, in a new production by co-artistic director Anthony Biggs, resonated strongly with the local community and is currently in discussions for a transfer. The play relates Dame Shirley Porter’s time as leader of Westminster City Council (1983-1991) and her gerrymandering of electoral districts under the guise of a policy called ‘Building Safer Communities’, which amounted to moving and rehousing local authority residents to create safer Conservative wards. Just as the Playground Theatre’s premises were being developed It was the neighbouring Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, in which it is located, that came under the spotlight for the Grenfell Tower fire. It was a tragic opportunity for the theatre to reveal its commitment to the local community, being just a mile away. Space was made available for the charity Grief Encounter to run sessions, many of which included actors singing and dancing over the Christmas holidays, as grieving survivors tried to come to terms with the events. Now in another venture the Playground has established an on-going community project in collaboration with the St Charles Hospital which enables patients with mental health issues to take part in play readings.
The opportunity to put on a world premiere is always a cause for theatrical excitement. It’s especially thrilling when it can be claimed for a play that probably dates from the late 1930s. Overshadowed, although greatly admired by Tennessee Williams, the late James Purdy finally had the play he never saw performed hit the boards. “To my mind,” says Tate, “James is a great American playwright that somehow slipped through the cracks.” Putting on Paradise Circus certainly went some way to raising Purdy to the surface again. Directed by Biggs it also showcased the wealth of talent that is attracted to the Playground theatre across all aspects of production. As I said in my review, it was “a gripping, mesmerising and enthralling experience” that proved to be a fitting finale to the theatre’s first year and has become another play looking to be transferred.
Tate observes that other noteworthy events and achievements also arose during the first twelve months. “Squeezed in between our plays we have had a number of top ranking comedians such as Nina Conti and James Acaster. As of January we would have also hosted productions in four other languages - French, Greek, Albanian and Russian. So we have packed in a lot”. Looking back he says, “I think the first year has exceeded expectations and, as an independent theatre with no subsidy, we are still here and surviving whilst retaining our artistic integrity”.
Moving into its second year the next season opens with another world premiere. Fanatical, is a pop-score, sci-fi, comedy musical that might have a special appeal for geeks aged over eleven who love theatre and people with a passion for dressing up to match the theme of a show. It’s an opportunity to release your inner extrovert! If that’s not quite your thing, I’m a Woman tells the true, inspiring and emotionally challenging story of an immigrant girl who battled childhood abuse, anorexia and prostitution on her journey to finally becoming a woman. A reminder that Grenfell still looms large in the area and people’s lives, Dictating the Estate keeps the ongoing debate alive in a staged reading of this new documentary play that draws on contemporary blog posts, email correspondence and council reports. Again, ringing the contrasts that feature in the planning of the year’s programme, Sacha Guitry, Ma Fille et Moi will run for a week following its January 2018 sellout. In French, with English subtitles, this comedy delves into the turbulent relationships of an acclaimed actress reconciling her demanding passions.
The centenary of the WWI armistice might be over but it’s abiding remembrance runs into 2019 with The Unknown Soldier. Making its London debut, Ross Ericson’s highly acclaimed play tells one man’s story of the challenges that emerged once the guns had fallen silent and the battlefields could be scoured. On a lighter, yet still serious note, there is a treat for fans of black comedy that takes the Playground through to the end of March. My Brother’s Keeper follows Tony and Sam as they try to repair family relationships at the bedside of their dying father.
Tate promises that “the forthcoming year will see some challenging subjects met head on”. If 2019 turns out to be anything like the inaugural year it should be worthwhile and rewarding to be on the theatre’s mailing list. Forthcoming announcements will reveal more of the Playground Theatre’s new programme that will further its commitment to a ‘universal language that speaks to all’.
Photo: Tim Woodward and Sophie Ward in The Paradise Circus (Scott Rylander is photographer).