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Greenwich: How Greenwich Theatre is hosting four blockbuster shows in 2024

Artistic director James Haddrell talks Frozen, Beauty And The Beast and why there’s no rent to be paid for 24 years

Kerrie Taylor will play the mother in Frozen

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There’s a bit of a buzz at Greenwich Theatre right now.

Arts funding across the country is being cut, companies and institutions are under increasing financial pressure.

So it’s heartening to hear the venue has signed a long lease agreement with the Royal Borough Of Greenwich that will allow it to keep hosting and producing work for another 24 years.

“It’s astonishing that we’ve got this kind of security now,” said James Haddrell, the theatre’s artistic director.

“It doesn’t come with a grant, but it does come with a rent-free commitment from the council, which we reckon is worth about £2million.

Greenwich Theatre artistic director James Haddrell

“The only conditions in the lease are that we look after the building and we continue doing what we’re doing.

“It means we can plan much further into the future and build relationships with funders and sponsors who know we’re going to be there for the long term.”

It’s a deal that’s vital to the venue’s future, especially as the  creative landscape has changed a great deal in the time that James has been at theatre.

“I came to Greenwich as press officer in 2001 and back then, it was very much a place where people who were 50 and over would come,” he said.

“They were regular theatregoers for whom it was automatic to think about seeing a show, going to a concert or visiting the cinema at the end of the week.

“The changes here have been quite heartening as our average audience is now under 40 and for some shows it’s mid-20s.

“Theatre had to be brave and acknowledge that the older audience was going to disappear and to explore whether theatre was going to disappear with it – it hasn’t.

Paul McGann will play the man with no name in The River

“I wonder whether, as more and more things become digital experiences, theatre will survive because it isn’t like them and will stand out as the exception.

“We have also seen a huge change in theatre landscape, which has been challenging.

“Go back 20 years and there was a thriving touring circuit of companies in this country working on the 400-seat scale we are.

“They were able to do it because they were well funded.

“If you want to present a show with high commercial production values, you need financial support and there was a lot more of it about back then.

“Companies have had to be brave and grow – or disappear.

“That means we have to fill Greenwich Theatre either with our own shows, which are devised for the scale of the venue, or with smaller shows that are full of aspiration and come here to grow.

“We’ve always been excited about the fact we occupy that sort of position in the theatre ecology. 

“We’re not a tiny 40-seater – we attract audiences, press coverage and commercial partners – but if you want to come and try out an idea, you’re not going to lose everything if it doesn’t sell.

“It’s exciting to see companies, who do a show, maybe once or twice, by themselves on a shoestring, grow and develop.”

James Bradshaw will play the murderer in Frozen

As part of that change and, bolstered by its agreement with the council, the venue has announced four landmark productions set to take place over the course of 2024.

This quartet of productions made for Greenwich are all to be directed by James and feature well-known names including Kerrie Taylor (Hollyoaks and Where The Heart Is), Paul McGann (Withnail And I and Doctor Who), James Bradshaw (Endeavour and Hollyoaks) and Indra Ové (Sex Education and Holby City)

At first glance, a programme including Frozen and Beauty And The Beast might raise eyebrows about the Disneyfication of the venue’s offering, but nothing could be further from the truth.

“I’ve wanted to direct Frozen – which is by Bryony Lavery and quite a different prospect from the Disney show – for years,” said James.

“It’s a three-hander about a woman whose child has been abducted and murdered.

“The mother will be played by Kerrie.

“Indra will take the role of the New York academic who wants to study the murderer, who will be played by James.

“It’s a stunning cast and a tough piece of work but it’s not a show that’s depressing – it’s beautiful in its truth.

“It explores nature and nurture, but whichever side of the argument you fall on, it will challenge you.

Beauty And The Beast also isn’t Disney. It’s a very joyful actor-musician show – a folk music-infused hoe-down retelling of the story. 

“There’s a cast of six and it features music from David Haller who has worked on several of our summer shows.

Indra Ové will play the New York academic in Frozen

“It’s incredibly exciting and really fun – there’s just something amazing about watching a brilliant actor pick up an instrument and perform.

“With The River, 2024 is very much a year where I’m achieving my ambitions.

“I’d wanted to do Frozen for a long time and that’s true of The River as well. 

“It was originally performed at the Royal Court in 2012 and is Jez Butterworth’s first play after Jerusalem.

“It’s very different to that, though and has astonishing writing in it.

“It’s about an unnamed man, who will be played by Paul McGann, who takes his girlfriend fishing and camping in the woods.

“Something has happened in the past – but what was it and to whom?

“All I can say is there are more than two people in the cast. It’s brilliant to have Paul coming back.

“There’s something about the atmosphere and the environment at Greenwich Theatre – that applies to the staff and to the performers – people love being in the venue, so they return.

“For an actor like Paul to come to this size venue is a testament to that.

“It’s about the history and you can feel it when you’re in the auditorium. It’s something really special.”

Speaking of which, the final production confirmed will be the latest Greenwich Theatre panto.

Dick Whittington And His Cat will see Anthony Spargo back as writer and villain and Uncle Steve Marwick returning as musical director,” said James.

“We won best design at the Offie Awards for last year’s so this will be about being better and bigger.

“That’s a challenge when we had seven dwarves and a plane in 2023.” 

  • key dates 

Frozen will run from April 26-May 19

Beauty And The Beast from August 2-25

The River from October 1-27

Dick Whittington And His Cat from November 22-January 5.

For more about Greenwich Theatre, go here

Anthony Spargo returns as writer and villain in Dick Whittington And His Cat

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Greenwich: How Greenwich Theatre’s Pinter double-bill is exactingly realised

Pitch-perfect performances in The Dumb Waiter + A Slight Ache maximum oxygen for audiences

Jude Akuwidike and Kerrie Taylor in A Slight Ache -image Danny Kaan

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THEATRE REVIEW

The Dumb Waiter + A Slight Ache, Greenwich Theatre, Until June 3, 2023

On the face of it, The Dumb Waiter is a play about a pair of hapless, ground down hitmen awaiting their next job in a dingy basement in Birmingham.

This has little to do with the subject of A Slight Ache, which follows the musings of a couple whose relationship becomes increasingly pressured by the presence of a mysterious match-seller.

But Harold Pinter’s tragi-comic short plays sit surprisingly well together on stage at Greenwich Theatre, especially when – pause for dramatic effect – presented by an overlapping cast.

The double bill, which runs until June 3, 2023, is everything live theatre ought to be.

Despite a cast of only three actors and a spare, minimal set, the production is a sharp, lean sliver of a thing, twisting and turning as the characters wrestle with their precarious situations.

The performances that director James Haddrell has coaxed from his cast are exactly right for the material.

Tony Mooney and Kerrie Taylor in A Slight Ache -image Danny Kaan

Jude Akuwudike, Kerrie Taylor and Tony Mooney each breathe rich, believable life into the five characters we meet across the two plays, in a way that effortlessly lets the audience focus on the ideas and topics teased and hinted at.

These are skilled professionals laying bare the strangeness of Pinter’s plots, making them whole with flesh and blood people.

A Slight Ache, has Edward (Akuwudike) and Flora (Taylor) incarcerated in the claustrophobic existence of their brittle relationship.

Much remains unsaid. Instead, the horror is all in the detail – the brutal execution of a wasp trapped in marmalade using boiling water is juxtaposed with cheerful chit chat about the various plants in the garden.

But what are we to make of the mysterious figure of a match seller just outside their tranquil oasis?

A brooding, constant presence that Edward is both terrified of and obsessed by.

Made flesh by a completely impassive Mooney, this figure is the impervious rock against which main characters pound themselves to wreckage – a study of buried truths, fantasy, repression, fear and desire – both sexual and maternal.

While all three are powerful – notably Mooney’s ability to convey a completely leaden, static presence – it’s Akuwudike who shines.

With much of the play in monologue, his depiction of Edward finds layers in a proper man confronted with the unknown – a breakdown inevitable as he wears himself down against the granite face of the totally unresponsive match seller.

Mooney, left, and Akuwudike in The Dumb Waiter – image Danny Kaan

The switch to The Dumb Waiter comes as something of a shock as Akuwudike is transformed from arch middle class essayist to a working class football fan and hitman. 

Along with Ben (a much more active Mooney) the pair are found in a claustrophobic basement bedsit as they grapple with boredom and the expectation of the next job.

While Pinter’s twist is over-telegraphed, the pressure-cooker atmosphere acts as an ideal counterpoint to A Slight Ache.

Here the unknown isn’t a character, but a series of mysterious messages via envelope under the door and what appear to be kitchen orders from an unseen and possibly defunct cafe above.

More dynamic than the first play, it casts its two characters as treading a fine line between the rational and irrational as they attempt to make sense of their lives, the dreadful murders they commit and the significance of why their boss hasn’t laid on any gas to make the tea. 

This play too is a tense portrait of two people struggling and, along with its companion, makes for a refreshing, thought-provoking night out at the theatre. 

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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