Six years ago, the Bush Theatre was still a well-known fixture in London’s pub theatre circuit; a tiny stage above a boozer on Shepherd’s Bush Green with 70-odd streets. It was a well-known space on a circuit of performance spaces which had served London well in the 1970s and 1980s as the places were theatre engaged in close dialogue with its audience. It was a circuit which created and sustained a creative world as much as providing an opportunity for audiences to see new work. Pubs like the Bush or the Old Red Lion near Angel were integral parts of it.
Yet in the last 20 years through the creation of fringe venues such as the Arcola in Dalston which has a large stage capable even of hosting small scale opera, the squashed confines of the pub theatre stage no longer match the ambition of modern dramatists or directors. The Arcola took a large unused warehouse, carved out ample performance space from it and then created a venue and a social experience around that, rather than the otherway round: shoving the stage in a place where there might otherwise be a pool table.
The Bush has made the journey into similar territory. Madani Younis, the new director of the Bush began his career putting on shows in industrial spaces in Yorkshire. Scale is an important quality for a new era of dramatists and writers. So with the help Haworth Tompkins, the Bush has moved to a former public library that has been transformed into an exceptional venue with two different performance spaces that can seat 250 collectively; one a small studio of 70 and another over twice the size. In addition, there are extensive back of house facilities including a writer’s studio. The effect of the interior with its reclaimed mahogany paneling and exposed brickwork is to convey the idea that the theatre is a civic structure not unlike the public library it once was.
The early 20th century library has been converted in a phased £4.3m redevelopment. In the latest phase – a new extension – a prominent cafe bar with an exterior garden terrace to the main street has been added. The process is not unlike others undertaken by Haworth Tompkins who have refurbished and reinvented several of London’s finest theatres the Young Vic and the National Theatre. Much of the interior is recycled or made from materials found on site. The architect’s regular collaborator Antoni Malinowski has painted ceilings within the front of house spaces to create a colourful, stimulating entrance to the theatre. The next phase will deal with improved accessibility and a new public space around the entrance to Shepherds Bush Market.