Back in the driving seat

The future looked bleak when the Soho Theatre Company was evicted from its Cockpit home. But an ambitious scheme has given it new life. By David Benedict
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The Independent Culture
Buying a house is second only to death in the stress game. Now imagine trying to buy a pounds 3.1m five-storey prime Soho site on the open market to turn into a theatre when your assets are less than pounds 30,000.

After months of terror and delays, contracts were finally exchanged on 13 May, and the inheritors of Verity Bargate and Fred Proud's Soho Poly pulled off their most spectacular coup de theatre. No mean feat for a company made homeless when their Westminster College landlord slung them out of the Cockpit Theatre last year. Small wonder that artistic director Abigail Morris and administrative producer Mark Godfrey are looking ever so slightly pleased with themselves. The spectre of fundraising lurks in the wings and the heat is still on as they draw up plans for a further lottery application for the development of this ugly duckling into the prayed-for swan, but the panic is off. There have been times in its 26- year history when the Soho Theatre Company has survived on little but optimism but at the moment the future looks positively sunny.

Morris winces but grins at the suggestion that she is a nice Jewish girl who went to Cambridge and fell into theatre. "I'd directed a couple of plays when someone asked me who the designer was. And I said, "Well, me... You mean you can get someone else to do that? That's the tricky bit." As for Godfrey, he's the marketing man who in the Eighties boom went to work at Price Waterhouse and realised that he was in the building that boasted the highest concentration of accountants anywhere in the world. "On day one I knew I had to leave." He applied for a job at the fringe venue Oval House and, to the consternation of his colleagues, was out of the door - for a lower salary - as fast as his legs could carry him.

He joined Soho in 1990. Morris arrived two years later and the resultant mix of enthusiasm and nous has paid off. They could have been forgiven for being daunted by the company's frighteningly illustrious history. Verity Bargate, who died in 1981 at the upsettingly early age of 40, was described as "the most persistent and effective encourager of new writing talent in the English theatre since George Devine". Without her, we might never have known of Barrie Keefe, Caryl Churchill, David Edgar, Sue Townsend, Hanif Kureishi and countless others. The three Cockpit years produced 35 world premieres and prizes from Thames, LWT, Time Out, the Writers' Guild, the Meyer-Whitworth award and the 1994 Empty Space/ Peter Brook award to name but a few.

Since losing their own theatre, they have co-produced Judy Upton's Bruises with the Royal Court, Jimmy Murphy's Brothers of the Brush with Chapman Duncan at the Arts and Diane Samuels's West End-bound Kinderstransport at the Watford Palace, which played to record-breaking houses.

That is what the public sees. The core of Soho's work happens offstage. They receive upwards of 1500 scripts a year, 80 playwrights are working with them at any given time and there are workshops every night of the week. Submitted scripts are sent to a readers' panel before being channelled through the literary manager Paul Sirett. Forty writers a year are invited to workshops for developmental work, rehearsed readings, platform performances, possible commission and ultimately production with certain scripts being submitted to the Verity Bargate award.

All of which is about to move into a higher gear. In addition to a flexible theatre space seating up to 200 (any larger would wreck the policy of presenting plays by first-time writers), the building will also function as a writers' centre with rooms for writers to work in, workshop spaces, rehearsal rooms and a possible script library. The building's extraordinary potential even persuaded the chair of the board, David Aukin, who wisely had warned of the dangers of a small company getting ideas above its station.

When news of their imminent eviction broke, friends, relatives and volunteers found over 100 buildings in Westminster, nearly all of which proved unsuitable due to problems with pillars, the need for height, public access, fire exits, you name it. There was, however, a synagogue for sale that the company had long known of as a rehearsal space. Walking around the vast Dean Street site, you suddenly share everyone's enthusiasm. "It's like those moments in rehearsal where you come up with a solution and everyone realises, 'that's it'," explains Morris. "It's like that with this building."

Even the Arts Council agreed, with both parties arranging to process six months' work in a staggering six weeks. "We went completely bonkers," confides Morris. The building was expensive, they had to raise 25 per cent in matching funding and they had to put a design out to competitive tendering. All the money had to be in place up front, but fundraising was a huge problem. Who would donate to a speculative lottery bid on a speculative building? As Godfrey points out, unlike redevelopment schemes, "at any moment we could have lost the building".

The really smart move was the provision of housing within the development plans. When a deal with the Soho Housing Association fell through, Soho's lawyer Simon Catt (who has put in pounds 75,000 of time and work) found them a developer who will turn three floors of the building into flats, thereby contributing dramatically to the matching funding requirement.

Everyone from Soho's unusually pro-active board downwards knows the scheme is ambitious, to put it mildly, but even Westminster, their local borough, are excited enough to have increased their funding for the year. Readings have already begun in the new building and they are searching for ways to utilise it creatively and financially before rebuilding begins. The effort needed to realise their vision will probably put last year in the shade, but their track record suggests that, when the doors finally open to the public in February 1999, it will all have been worth it.