'Close-up Magic '- 40 Years at the Bush Theatre

Edited by Neil Burkey
Third Millennium Publishing

Before its recent move around the corner to the old Shepherd's Bush Library, the Bush Theatre had enjoyed four decades as a remarkable theatrical phenomenon.

The theatre was located in an unbelievably cramped building, over an Irish pub that later became an Irish-themed pub next to the rock concert venue the Shepherd's Bush Empire. Even so this tiny venue, while having the proportions of a flyweight, was consistently a heavyweight contender.

It constantly unearthed new playwrights, actors and directors, not to mention the plays that came with them. In this way, it was a mini National Theatre.

This book has been compiled from interviews and photographs covering the whole of the theatre's first 40 years.

It may look as if it is designed to lie on coffee tables, with large format and high quality glossy paper (not to mention the cover price), but that would be a gross under-estimation of the content, which is consistently well-written and informative.

The impression from the early sections is that its founder Brian McDermott must have been mad to take on such a venture. In fact, he was probably mad with love for the medium and it is his vision that has not only created the Bush but a whole plethora of pub theatres creating brave new work across London.

In the first couple of decades, the venue operated as something of a co-operative with typically three Joint Artistic Directors plus a couple of support staff taking on every role from the highfalutin artistic to the mundanity of building sets, cleaning and selling tickets. That was part of the charm and undoubtedly added to an artistic ethos that proved so popular.

In this period, the likes of Snoo Wilson and Dusty Hughes made big contributions and each provides their own reminiscences.

Jenny Topper has a talent for summing up what the Bush meant during her nine years in co-office. "We were creating magic out of apparently thin air" says it perfectly.

Of the collaborations, she commented "Let me emphasize that this was not dull and safe art by committee, but a dialogue amongst passionate practitioners, and if this sometimes led to tears and tantrums, it also meant that we shared in the acclamation, and the failures rested on all our shoulders".

This book is also a happy celebration of the great and the good who became theatre and frequently film and TV celebrities from the wonderful springboard that the West London theatre became.

Names such as Alan Rickman, Bob Hoskins, Simon Callow and Julie Walters rub shoulders with Stephen Poliakoff and the Johnsons, Terry and Catherine.

Amongst artistic directors, Jenny Topper went on to Hampstead, Dominic Dromgoole the Globe and the most recent incumbent Josie Rourke is headed for the Donmar.

We must also pay tribute to Mike Bradwell who has given almost a whole career to the theatre, having first made contact during his days at Hull Truck Company.

Bradwell, who gave the book its title, has his own view of what gave this little theatre its magic and will inevitably continue to do so following the move. "Real theatre is difficult, provocative, sexy, beautiful and dangerous. It encompasses the humanity of Chekhov and the corruptive power of rock 'n' roll. A real Playhouse is an emporium of magic, of strange and forbidden delights—an ill-conducted place of recreation where imagination is inflamed to a degree of madness". That is the Bush.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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