The Soho Poly Theatre Festival

Posted: Tue Jun 12 2012

The tiny Soho Poly THeatre was a radical icon. Forty years later, times have changed but Soho is still a hotbed of hedonism and performance - and not just in the theatre. Two insiders talk about Soho then and now

Matthew Morrison, playwright, lecturer and curator of this week's Soho Poly Theatre Festival, summons the ghost of Soho past.

A few months ago I found myself standing knee-deep in junk in a filthy basement storeroom. It was hard not to choke on the dust, and even harder to imagine it as a theatre. Fred Proud and Verity Bargate must have felt something similar in 1972 when they first saw the tiny premises on Riding House Street. Yet it was here that they established the Soho Poly, one of the most iconic theatres of the 1970s and '80s.

By 1972, Fred and Verity had already been staging plays for a few years, venue-hopping in search of a permanent home. The solution came in the unlikely form of the Polytechnic of Central London (now the University of Westminster) which leased them an old underground garage. Before productions could be mounted, the space had to be transformed. Walls were covered in cork, and a hydraulic liftshaft pit was cleared to create a dressing room. In Time Out, critic John Ford described the venue euphemistically as 'low, warm, cosy and compact'.

The Soho Poly's main draw was lunchtime theatre: 45-minute plays and other experiments. For the next two decades, it produced the work of Barrie Keeffe, Michael McClure, Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton and many others. Plays had short runs and were programmed back-to-back, creating all sorts of clashes and contrasts.

Four decades after Soho Poly was founded, playwright Ben Musgrave and myself have programmed a 40-year anniversary celebration in the place where the story began. With the help of Fred Proud himself, we've cleared the original venue and given it a lick of paint. We've invited critics to come and talk, and playwrights Robert Holman and David Edgar will introduce readings of early work, first performed there. The Miniaturists and Soho Theatre itself is joining in too.

Soho Poly's eclectic programming meant it never fitted easily into histories of the radical fringe. But there's no doubting the revolutionary zeal of its founder. In a post for our festival blog, Fred closed with a call to arms: 'Invent a new kind of theatre that pulls down the dumb obedience to consumerism and encourages out-spoken individualism.' Perhaps that call will be heard in the new basement space at the present Soho theatre, just a few hundred metres away on the other side of Oxford Street.

Current Soho Theatre artistic director Steve Marmion hails the spirit of Soho Future.

Forty years after Soho Poly was founded we remain truest to the original mission of the company in the new work that we produce. Yes, things have changed since day one - people are paid, we have a theatre (three!) and we have a marketing and development department - but we still want to give a platform to the most insightful and important unheard voices around. Behind the scenes is a massive amount of activity with emerging and established new writers and young people.

Great art and great hedonism have always been associated. From Dylan Thomas to Karl Marx, the streets of Soho are synonymous with invention, innovation and wonder. These are the streets where, 200 years ago, commedia dell'arte troupes got pissed with British variety, decided they want to work together and invented pantomime. These days, Soho Theatre is London's most vibrant venue for new work, writing, comedy and cabaret. With as many as ten different performances in a day, we are busy, to say the least.

Soho Theatre's future lies at the convergence point of all genres of live performance. We want to create an atmosphere where all these different artists can collaborate with audiences. Writers working with puppets, designers creating worlds for actors, composers penning new operas with cabaret acts and comedians acting in the latest political comedy - all washed down with a drink. If it leads to great art, and if we were brave - good. And
if we have a great time making and consuming it - even better.