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From Emma Rice to David Lan, 2018 is a year of exodus for London theatre’s artistic directors. But few departures feel like the end of an era quite so much as that of Sean Holmes. For nine years, he has made the Lyric Hammersmith his own. And it’s been one of the bravest, weirdest and coolest venues in London, a 550-seat Victorian playhouse that mixed oddball smashes (‘Ghost Stories’, ‘Twisted Tales’) with monumental revivals (‘Blasted’, ‘Saved’) and work that really threw down the gauntlet.
‘When I started,’ says Holmes, ‘the other people running London theatres had a kind of centrist taste. That meant that we were able to be the opposition.’
‘Three Kingdoms’, on in 2012, was a trilingual Lynchian thriller that was trashed by much of the press (not Time Out FYI) for being too weird, but became a rallying cry for a new generation of leftfield British theatre-makers.
Secret Theatre was an elaborate experiment in avant-garde repertory staged while much of the building was shut for refurbishment. Holmes launched it with a speech in which he basically panned all contemporary UK theatre.
After that he had the audacity to sweet-talk Alan Parker into allowing the first professional revival of ‘Bugsy Malone’ in almost two decades – it was the first musical Holmes had directed and the biggest hit of his tenure. And let’s not forget that he successfully got some of the hippest young directors and playwrights in the country to make actual pantomimes.
Now, though, it’s time to go. Mostly because ‘ten years seems about right’, though in his last three years Holmes – who has an ability to simultaneously seem very relaxed and very intense as he talks – has felt a certain bittersweet sense of mission accomplished. ‘The leadership of a lot of those theatres had changed,’ he says, ‘and work of the sort that, crudely, you may have expected to be at the Lyric was just more prevalent. If I were to make a criticism of my last three years, I think that shift meant we couldn’t just rely on being the opposition.’
First, though, there’s a final season, revealed exclusively in Time Out today. As Holmes acknowledges, it’s a bit of an unusual one, as he will have already left the building, making it a sort of bridge between himself and his as-yet-unnamed successor. ‘I hope to leave them something exciting and varied, but I also want to give them a relative amount of stability.’
To that end, then, the longest run in the season is the return of ’Ghost Stories’. Written by Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, the fright-tastic show gave Holmes a big early hit back in 2010, and went on to enjoy two West End seasons and a film adaptation. ‘I think there’s a whole new generation of younger theatregoers who are ready to see that play,’ says Holmes.
A revival for the 1927 theatre company’s superb, semi-animated ‘The Animals and Children Took to the Streets’, and the return of regulars Kneehigh with their show ‘Dead Dog in a Suitcase’, rounds out the season alongside its opener and the only brand-new production, ‘Leave to Remain’. A play-with-songs, it’s a collab between writer Matt Jones and Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke, and by Holmes’s account, the workshops for it were ‘electrifying’.
By then, Holmes will have left. He doesn’t know who is going to succeed him – but whoever they are, what advice would he give them?
‘I think I’d say two things,’ he says. ‘One, that the biggest risks were often the biggest successes. And the other thing is that it’s a really good job. You’re really lucky. If I hadn’t been running this place I would never have been able to do half of these shows. For all the difficulties and nightmares, it’s yours.’
Complete Lyric Hammersmith listings are here.