Theatre: Let's have no more bleating about the Bush

Yes, London's premier new- writing venue has just suffered a grant cut. But it's also just won this year's Empty Space Award. James Christopher celebrates 25 years of dramatic innovation atop a West London pub.

The Bush Theatre will celebrate its 25th birthday on 30 November by presenting extracts from 14 of its greatest hits performed by the original casts. It's an important piece of back-slapping, not because you will be able to see Lynda La Plante and Simon Callow fluff their lines in Snoo Wilson's The Soul of the White Ant. But because 25 years of digging rough diamonds out of the fringe has made the Bush one of the most experienced prospectors of raw talent in Europe.

I was shocked to discover that this pub theatre was actually founded by Brian McDermott, a maverick who has been touting his transvestite solo turn, The Adolf Hitler Show, indiscriminately around the fringe for decades. For many years I thought, "There but for the grace of God goes most of the fringe". I must now eat humble pie. McDermott, who was regularly arrested for his inflammatory speeches at Hyde Park Corner, ran the Bush with the inspired abandon of an Edinburgh festival impresario. Between 1972 and 1974 the Bush produced a staggering 77 productions. The Bush's new writing policy was born here.

Shows opened morning, noon and night and featured everything from nudity to performing rats. The only discernible pattern was a commitment to new writers like John McGrath, John Arden, David Edgar, Howard Barker, Edward Bond and a certain young hotshot called Tina Brown. You couldn't have invented a more wayward past.

Now the Bush has grown up. The annual programme is a modest nine productions and a thousand new scripts hit the doormat every year. What does it feel like? "It feels like an awfully long time," says the current artistic director Mike Bradwell. And so it should. Bradwell was first here in 1974 with Hull Truck in a piece he devised called The Knowledge. And he's been coming back with supernatural regularity ever since.

Despite knocking up 24 shows on the premises, he was still a surprise choice when theatre's most famous football haircut, Dominic Dromgoole, resigned two years ago. "You'll never get it in a million years," said Dromgoole when Bradwell phoned to ask whether he should apply. Bradwell out-talked his young opponents and duly got the job.

Bradwell has a remarkable perspective on the place he calls home. Some of it is contained in the introduction to The Bush Theatre Book (Methuen Drama, pounds 9.99). Other parts of it have passed into thespian folklore. The list of those who gave to the cause reads like a Who's Who of British theatre, ranging from directors like Jenny Topper and Nicky Pallot to writers like Stephen Poliakoff, Snoo Wilson, Doug Lucie, Sharman MacDonald and Jonathan Harvey.

The Bush's proximity to some of the most unlovely streets in London has played its own part too. During Billy Roche's Wexford Trilogy, a drunk staggered up the fire escape (the only way for the actors to get to the dressing-room), walked across the set and out the door on his way to his next pint. This year, when Culture Secretary Chris Smith turned up for a performance of Joe Penhall's Love and Understanding, a Bulgarian heavy- metal guitarist high on drugs had to be prised from the dressing-room before the show could go on.

Bradwell makes the challenges for the next 25 years sound as simple as Tim Roth falling through an open window and plunging to his death in the Goldhawk Road every night during Nick Darke's The Oven Glove Murders. "People think I'm making this up but the only criteria at the Bush is to find good new plays and put them on to the best of our ability. That's it. That's the agenda. We've currently got five women writers on commission not because we think there's a political point to be addressed, but for the simple reason that they are writing the best plays. Most of the scripts that come through the door are pastiches of Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking. Last year it was Mojo. And next year it will be Princess Diana."

Money, as ever, is a major priority as is "a space to kick new plays about". But despite an exemplary application for half a million pounds from the Lottery-funded Arts for Everybody scheme, the Bush has been unceremoniously knocked back. They, along with Greenwich Theatre, the Gate and BAC, have just suffered dramatic grant cuts after having been told by their respective funding bodies that the money was almost certainly in place. The winning of the 1997 Peter Brook Empty Space Award last night will have taken some of the sting out of the financial disappointment. But new writing policies cannot survive on pounds 2,000 prize money alone.

"Hence the fuss over the Gala, the book and the 25 years," explains Bradwell. "The money from that, and the Empty Space Award, will hopefully shift us up another gear. We already have a writers' group but I'm looking for more interaction. They're not very good at it," he notes drily. "I'm particularly keen on `mentoring': pairing writers like Doug Lucie with first-timers.

"It's too easy to see the Bush as a stepping-stone for writers on the way to greater glory," muses Bradwell. "It's bound to look like that. After all, new writers go on and do other things. But it's not all about discovery. It's about nurturing too. In that respect we're as important nationally as the Royal Court.

"The other thing we're working on," he continues, "is establishing a circuit of new writing with theatres in America. We're sending Love and Understanding to the Long Wharf Theatre (an old sausage factory) in New Haven and they're sending us David Rabe's A Question of Mercy. Hopefully we can set up a regular exchange like Max Stafford-Clark at the Court had with Joe Papp's Public Theatre in New York."

So much for the future. What of the present? "We are in a culture of winners and losers," argues Bradwell. "Reactions are extreme. You're either Mark Ravenhill and fabulously successful with your first play or you can curl up and die. There isn't the same venue loyalty as there used to be. People don't come to see new writing per se. They come if the play is an event. Long gone are the days when you could look at the bookings list and see the same names coming back. You can never tell who or what the Bush audience is now. It's the same everywhere. Our kickback is that we do get younger audiences prepared to sample something different after seeing, say, Kate Beckinsale in Clocks and Whistles [by Samuel Adamson] because she's in and she's sexy."

What happened to that glorious loyalty? "Theatre has become expensive," says Bradwell. "And there's a lot more competition. The culture is dominated by marketing. The West Yorkshire Playhouse has people doing jobs that didn't exist 10 years ago: there's a head of corporate entertainment, a head of marketing, a head of fundraising, and people running about with degrees in photocopying. Needless to say, the fuckers still manage to spell your name wrong in the programme."

Some things seem destined never to change.

The Bush's latest commission, Helen Blakeman's `Caravan', opens this Friday at the Bush, Shepherds Bush Green, London W12 (booking: 0181-743 3388). Its 25th Birthday Gala is on Sun 30 Nov at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs, St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (booking: 0171-602 3703)

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