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David Babani

David Babani - "the stuff of fairy tales coming true"

Philip Fisher talks to the artistic director of the Menier Chocolate Factory

"It's the stuff of fairy tales coming true" sounds like a cliché but in the case of the Menier Chocolate Factory's David "Badboy" Babani this is almost an understatement.

His year could hardly have started better, since within the first three months his achievements could arguably be regarded as matching or even eclipsing those of his Southwark neighbour, Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre.

David Babani, whose mafia-style nickname comes from an alternative persona as a poker player, has run the Menier Chocolate Factory since it opened in 2004. This is supposed to be a fringe theatre in an unfashionable part of London close to London Bridge but has achieved a stream of West End hits and a full hand of major awards thanks to the vision and ambition of its softly-spoken artistic director.

Despite eclectic programming, there have been far more moments to savour than disasters in the three years since the derelict source of fine chocolate for well over a century was converted into a theatre with themed bistro attached.

While the director gets things right to a remarkable degree considering that he has not yet celebrated his 30th birthday, his judgement isn't always perfect. When the team began designing Sunday in the Park with George, his immediate reaction was, "It's Sondheim, it's not very popular in the real world, it will never leave the building". It certainly did well at the Chocolate Factory with tickets by the end of the run selling on eBay at up to £300 each.

Since then however, the musical, which starred Olivier award winners Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, has soared. First, it won the prestigious Critics' Circle Award for Best Design for David Farley and Timothy Bird who used computer wizardry to synthesise Seurat's art with the actors on stage, in an upmarket equivalent to the inventiveness of Who Killed Roger Rabbit. A year on, having transferred into the West End, the show scooped five awards at the Olivier's last week, making it the runaway hit of the year.

The story does not stop there, as Babani has recently returned from a trip to New York during which he agreed terms for a Broadway run at Studio 54 early in 2008.

At the same time as Sunday struck Olivier gold, the West End transfer of the 2006 Christmas show, another revival, Little Shop of Horrors, was beginning rehearsals. This "fun, pop, rock and roll" American musical that became a cult movie had not been seen in London since its original production and a Broadway revival flopped, in Babani's eyes because it was in too big a theatre for the material.

"We wanted to do it in an intimate, fun, small way. We wanted to add a layer of quirkiness through the sci-fi B-movies that influenced it. I felt so passionately about this show for a long time and the thing that we really wanted to do is that we wanted to redesign the plant (named Audrey)".

Anybody who has seen the latest production will had been impressed by the lovable monstrosity that at times threatens to take over the show from its human stars led by Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps's Sheridan Smith and American Mike McShane, best known for his improvisations in Whose Line Is It Anyway?.

Despite his success to date, Babani has a healthy scepticism about guaranteeing any show's ability to make it to the West End let alone become a hit. "The West End is such a volatile place that you can't predict anything these days". He is therefore delighted that for the second year in a row the Menier has created a musical that has attracted producers. "The fact that we got a transfer, given how busy the climate is and how tough it is just to find a theatre, let alone to find an audience is a testament to the quality of the production and everybody that worked on it".

Quite how David Babani became an impresario is a tribute to his determination and initiative. According to his mother, this theatre addict got into the business through the auspices of "black magic", presumably the mystical variety rather than the chocolates.

The story is so unlikely that one wonders whether a fairy godmother didn't wave a wand around the Londoner, at some point in his early life. When he was supposed to be studying for a drama degree at Bristol, following in the footsteps of recent alumni such as in-yer-face playwrights Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane, director Matthew Warchus and Little Britain's Matt Lucas, he spent his holidays producing plays in London. He launched his career showing an early love of Sondheim with a version of Assassins that "exploded" at the tiny New End Theatre in Hampstead.

The youngster tried to hedge his bets by finishing the degree and producing Richard III for the National Theatre Studio at the same time. However, his tutors eventually smelt a rat and what started as a six-week sabbatical fast became a career when the degree-less teenager stepped in to become artistic director at the Jermyn Street Theatre in a road just off Piccadilly better known for expensive shirts. This also gave him his first West End production, Forbidden Broadway, at the record-breakingly tender age of 19.

From there he toured around, including trips to Australia and the Far East and very nearly took a permanent job in Adelaide. At that point, fate took a hand when "the Chocolate Factory sort of fell into my lap. I met the landlord, fell in love with the building and the rest is history".

He and his erstwhile business partner Danielle Tarento "opened the building within six weeks of signing the lease and within six months we'd turned ourselves into a full-time producing theatre". Three months after that, the Chocolate Factory had had its first West End transfer with Becky Mode's one-man show Fully Committed and has continued to consolidate a great reputation as a lively and exciting alternative to a night out in the West End.

Since then the team has mixed every kind of theatrical performance imaginable with harsh, challenging contemporary theatre from both sides of the Atlantic, classics, light comedies, stand-up and both chamber and larger-scale musicals.

David Babani has a very fixed ethos about his theatre and that relates to a combination of quality and variety. "We will never knowingly put on a show at the Chocolate Factory that is not entertaining".

That is a very good recommendation for any theatre but he also likes to go a step further. "The most exciting thing to me about the building and running the Chocolate Factory is the fact that we can get people to come and see one particular show that they think they will like, they have a good time and might see something else and they will come and see a show that otherwise they would run away from. I love that juxtaposition and when people discover us they are very loyal".

To complement the theatre's latest West End venture, one of its favourite sons, double Olivier winning Welsh actor Daniel Evans is starring in a revival of Christopher Hampton's play about Rimbaud and Verlaine, Total Eclipse, which opens later in March.

A trip to the Menier Chocolate Factory is a revelation. This may be a fringe theatre but the stage space is large, the productions adventurous and a high quality pre-or post theatre dinner is available on site. It may still be one of London's well-kept secrets but with the vision of an exciting young artistic director and a sideboard creaking under a mountain of awards, that will not last for long.

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©Peter Lathan 2007