Simon Reilly, Manager of the Tabard theatre 2008-2019
Profile by Bridget Osborne
June 2018 (Updated 2019)
Simon Reilly (second from the right), with Alan Alda (centre) and the cast of Radiance
Ten Years at the Tabard
The Tabard theatre is full of surprises. First of all that it’s there at all. Not every London suburb has its own bijou (100 seat) theatre, and secondly that the productions are consistently so good and so varied for such a small, local theatre. One minute you see that Phyllis Logan (Downton Abbey) and Kevin McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean) are there being interviewed about their careers in theatre by their son, or that Alan Alda has popped over from Hollywood for the European premier of a play he’s written. The next they’re putting on a production by a young playwright making their debut with a cast fresh out of drama school.
The mix of productions and the quality threshold over the past ten years has been largely down to the energy and talent of Tabard Managing Director Simon Reilly, who celebrated ten years at the Tabard in 2018. Most managers celebrating their ten year anniversary would open a bottle of champers and take their staff out for a meal perhaps, but this is theatre dahling, so Simon took his staff to an Escape Room in Shepherd’s Bush. If you don’t know what that is, think Fort Boyard or The Crystal Maze only locked inside built sets, more Laser Quest than RSC. You enter a themed room, a forest glade or Victorian drawing room to solve your murder mystery and have to find your way out using puzzles and clues. Step forward Sandra the resident stage manager, Alec who does front of house and Dave the intern and claim your moment in the spotlight. “We got out in 53 minutes” says Simon proudly.
Left: Simon with members of his team celebrating his ten year anniversary. Right: Sandra and Simon with Phyllis Logan, Kevin and David McNally.
A solid grounding in theatre
Simon studied economics and law at university, which he says has helped him tremendously. “When running a theatre predominantly by yourself you have to have a business head” he says, but it was the education he received as President of Leicester University’s Theatre Society which gave him the chance to try out every aspect of theatre, running twelve productions a year. He then did a post grad qualification in acting at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in Wood Green even though he already knew he didn’t want to be an actor: “I wanted to get a feel for how an actor does their preparation.”
His first job in theatre was as a producer in a small company touring shows in Leicester, Nottingham and Derby. From there he went to the Warehouse theatre in Croydon, (which has since been demolished) as Marketing Manager. “I remember people like Russell Brand and Russell Howard, who now sell out huge venues, playing to four or five people.”
“Marketing”, says Simon, “is the cornerstone of producing”. When he moved to the Hackney Empire, a big leap from a 100 seat to a 1,300 seat theatre with a marketing budget of £300,000 there were “heated discussions” about productions. “Marketing can only be as good as the show you’re putting on” he says. “Programming would programme productions without any respect for marketing and Marketing would just get lumped with the problem.”
Building up the audience
I think that rather answered my next question – why go from the Hackney Empire to a run-down little pub theatre which seats only 100 people? At the Tabard Simon has control of the whole process. Some shows are bought in. The Tabard just provides technical support to a theatre company which does the rest, but a number of shows each year are produced in house, where they produce the show, build the sets, choose the music, source the costumes and props – the whole nine yards – and you can see this is where he gets his job satisfaction.
The theatre was dark for a few years before he arrived. “The Tabard has been around since 1985 but it was not well run and it was dirty” he says. When he came to it Fred Perry (nominated for an ‘Offie’, an Off West End award for Best Male Performance in Tryst at the Tabard last autumn) had carried out a refurbishment of the theatre but they had to build the audience from scratch.
Simon’s greatest achievement at the Tabard?
“What I am most proud of is seeing so many members of the local community come back again and again. We have a stall at the Bedford Park Festival Green Days weekend and invariably the people I meet tell me that they have come recently.”
The Chiswick Calendar has made many videos of productions at the Tabard. We’ve done many interviews with actors and directors and what I like about the theatre most is the variety and at the same time the quality threshold which we’ve come to expect. “People now come for the theatre first and foremost” says Simon. “It’s more about the theatre for them than the individual shows”, which means that he has built an expectation of standards.
The theatre used to see audiences of ten and twenty people a night but now some shows sell out every single performance. The Tabard has benefitted greatly from comedians such as Dara O’Brien, Jenny Éclair, Frank Skinner and Russell Howard using it to try out their material in front of a small audience before they go on tour or record a TV show. Their contract with comedy producers Avalon is their bread and butter but it also gives the people of Chiswick the opportunity to see big names very cheaply on their doorstep.
Simon oversaw a second refurbishment of the theatre last year. “Invariably when I talked to people they would complain about the uncomfortable seating.” That went. When the pub changed hands. Greene King took over and the theatre entered a new lease, they took the opportunity to rip out the old uncomfortable seating and install a new bar.
Clearly a difficult one. He had to think about that, as there have been so many but he came up with Oscar Wilde’s Ideal Husband from 2014 and Gilbert and Sullivan productions in 2011 and 2012.
Future ambitions for the Tabard?
“I’d like to put on another Gilbert and Sullivan. I want to do HMS Pinafore” and “my main ambition is getting a bigger theatre in Chiswick, about 300 seats with the ability to build our own sets. Knocking down the Empire theatre was a cultural tragedy”. It would be great to have a bigger theatre in Chiswick again.
Simon left the Tabard one year later, having achieved all he felt he could achieve in the space.
The Tabard theatre is a member of The Chiswick Calendar’s Club Card scheme
Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar
See also: Simon Reilly to leave Tabard theatre