Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: this is where we got to when you came in, Bush Theatre

Review: this is where we got to when you came in, Bush Theatre

Published on Culture Wars, 23.09.2011

It’s just a room above a pub overlooking Shepherd’s Bush Green. It’s tatty and it’s small, but for the past forty years it has housed little patches of elsewhere, courtesy of writers, directors, actors, technicians and a whole raft of others.

Now, it’s empty – or rather emptying – as the Bush Theatre relocates to a larger found space around the corner, formerly the local library. From October, it really will be just another room above just another pub overlooking just another green.

Treading a fine line between navel gazing and inconsequence, outgoing artistic director Josie Rourke has commissioned a final audiotour of the theatre from theatrical journey-makers non zero one and writer Elinor Cook. The result is a walked talking-heads documentary, bristling with absence and memories, through the warren of rooms that made it all possible. It’s not a fanfare of a farewell, but a single minor chord lingering into silence.

If the concept risks self-indulgence, seeming a canny attempt at self-mythologizing, the tour opens itself outwards, crucially acknowledging the role of four decades worth of audiences. Finally, this is our space and our goodbye. Our memories – perhaps not so many, perhaps not so extraordinary – are just as vital as those of former employees.

For that reason, well-researched though it is, this is where we got to… requires an existing relationship with the Bush to strike its note of sentimentality. One must feel a tinge of loss standing finally on the stage itself, stripped of any scenery and purpose. You note its smallness, its scruffiness, it’s surprising proximity to the outside world, before taking your leave for the last time. That moment is built by the journey that precedes it, but it needs some foundation to function.

Otherwise it’s just an access-all-areas theatre tour, thriving on curiosity, but nonetheless conjuring the thrill of theatre as it goes. We see the tiny office with its single table, makeshift blackboards and ramshackle archiving system. We see the dressing room, teeming with first-night gifts, thank you cards and everyday detritus. We walk the fire escape to the stage itself, overlooking the surrounding rooftops and a small mound of fag butts dragged in nervy haste.

Somehow, in spite of seeming intricately sculpted chaos, this is where we got to… overcomes its own contrivance. Poking about might feel ridiculous, but there’s enough momentary magic – scrawled memories materialising in toilet cubicles, unexpected pubs where kitchenettes should be – to lance the cynicism and the journey itself is well-constructed, building a crescendo as the gravitational pull to the stage increases.

That draw, you realise, is responsible for the entire structure. The Bush sprang into existence not on a whim but because it was needed. It’s not an ideal set-up – in fact, it’s barely even logical – but it worked because it had to, even if that meant propping it up with devotion and sacrifice, invention and imagination, grit and cheap wine.

Stood onstage you can’t avoid a flicker of total finality. For a split-second, the room expands to appear an archaeological attraction: alien, primitive, empty. What if this was the last theatre in existence? After this, I’m certain we’d walk out and plot a replacement somewhere, somehow, don’t know where, don’t know when…

Photograph: non zero one

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