Through an unassuming doorway, above a noisy pub, on the edge of the resolutely unglamorous Shepherd’s Bush Green, the Bush Theatre – home to countless premieres of world-class new writing – now stands all but empty. After 39 years in the building’s pokey offices, twisting staircases and strikingly compact studio space, the Bush has relocated to a characterful library round the corner and this is where we got to when you came in is the unique way audiences can say goodbye to its old home.
Outgoing Artistic Director Josie Rourke decided to honour the building by giving audiences a fully hands-on exploration of the space in a piece by interactive company non zero one, along with writer Elinor Cook, designer Julia Berndt and sound artist James Bulley. Small groups are led around the building by speakers, headphones and projections, through which memories and reflections are shared by figures from the theatre’s past.
The building is transformed into a playground for you to make your own, and any initial polite reluctance to go rummaging through old receipts and private correspondence soon flies out of the window. Curiosity is rewarded, and whilst every individual will uncover their own secrets, this critic got a particular thrill (and lesson in professional etiquette) from the discovery of handwritten notes from the critical elite to the theatre’s management. It is this feeling that the theatre is yours for the taking which makes the experience so satisfying. Yet, since everyone is taken on their own journey in which you cannot fully share, you are still left wanting more, aware that the theatre has not quite given up all of its secrets to you.
The path of discovery is punctuated by moments of pure theatricality. Whether it is a ringing telephone, a surprise in one of the building’s less salubrious closets, or the appearance of unexpected visitors, these instances demonstrate non zero one’s skill for creating tension and awe in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Given time to pause and reflect, you absorb the sights, smells and sounds of London and realise that the theatre is part of a city and community that is so much greater than itself. There is power too in the way the piece captures the ephemeral nature of performance and recognises that even the building will become something new, never again to have anxious actors anoint it with their fag ends.
non zero one succeed in demonstrating how theatres are brought to life by the creativity within their walls. Despite the building’s relative desolation, certain points still illicit a thrill as they evoke the feelings of theatre – the calm of a pre-show ritual, the rush of adrenaline as you await your cue, the sadness of an ending as you depart down the stairs. Crucially, this is not just an ode to the Bush Theatre, but rather it captures the very heart of what makes every theatre special. As the voices of Alan Rickman or Sam Barnett reflect on their memories of the space you realise the fondness they recall is replicated in dressing rooms and wings in theatres world wide.
this is where we got to when you came in leaves you questioning: what makes a theatre? Is it merely the bricks and mortar? Or is it the people that come through its doors, work in its offices, stand on its stage? What about the ideas and aspirations that drive them? The reputation they create? As the Bush Theatre grows with its new home, many of these things will remain a constant, and its identity is much more than this building. Poignant though the goodbye is, an upgrade clearly is in order, and what seems most remarkable as you hear tales about the toilet queue or hunker down with your cast members for a pre-show nap in the intimate dressing room, is that so much was achieved in a space so small. Yet it is a space that has inspired so many, and no matter what your memories of the Bush Theatre are, the experience of this is where we got to when you came in alone ensures that it will never be forgotten.