Theatre at the Tabard celebrates its first year

Image above: Simon and Sarah Reilly; Theatre at the Tabard

80 productions, two Off West End nominations and a fridge full of melted ice cream

Theatre at the Tabard is celebrating its first year. Sunday 23 June marked twelve months since performances restarted at the Tabard, after Take Note Theatre took over the running of the theatre.

They have a lot to celebrate: More than 80 productions during the past year, including five in-house productions which ran for several weeks, four of which were nominated for London Pub Theatres Standing Ovation Awards, and two for ‘Offies’ – Off West End awards. They have also had some big names in the entertainment world dropping in to perform – Jenny Eclair and Siân Phillips to name but two.

But, rather irritatingly, they still have people coming to shows who say: “I thought this theatre had closed down.”

There has been an independently run studio theatre upstairs at the Tabard pub in Chiswick since 1985, but performances came to an abrupt halt last spring, when the pub landlord Greene King decided not to renew the lease to the last incumbent and offered the space out for tender.

After a hiatus of several months, Simon Reilly, who had managed the space several years previously, took over running it again with his wife Sarah, under the company name Take Note Theatre. They have to call it ‘Theatre at the Tabard’ rather than the ‘Tabard Theatre’ because the previous incumbent still owns the name, and they have had to start building up the business again from scratch. People who were on the mailing list for the Chiswick Playhouse suddenly stopped receiving emails and many have just assumed that was the end of the theatre.

A big thank-you to benefactors and volunteers

Their first challenge was to redecorate and restock the empty building.

“We had no lights, no theatre black drapes. We needed to replace all the fixtures and fittings, to fit out the dressing room and buy sound equipment.”

They are hugely grateful to benefactors who have made donations and volunteers who have come and helped them get the space into shape. I met Pat McMahon, a professional painter and decorator who came across the theatre by chance, some years ago, having never set foot in a theatre before.

“I was waiting for a mate in the pub and didn’t want to just get drunk waiting for him, so I wandered in to kill a couple of hours. I think it’s fabulous.”

So fabulous, that he has painted the premises throughout for them. The office we were sitting in was much nicer than it used to be too, largely thanks to Sarah’s influence and the fact that their ten-year-old daughter spends quite a lot of time there. There are now home comforts such as a comfy sofa, a television, and a fridge.

It reflects the long days Simon and Sarah both work, setting up productions in the mornings, doing the website, sorting out admin, overseeing rehearsals in the afternoons and front of house for live performances in the evenings.

Image above: Mark Kitto’s one man show Chinese Boxing 

One-nighters put money in the bank but their own in-house productions are more fun

The majority of their shows (80%) are on for just one night, or for two or three nights only. This week is typical, with The Emily Robinson-Hardy Experience on Tuesday 25 July – a magic show which won four big ‘Yeses’ on America’s Got Talent and earned standing ovations in Los Angles & New York.

Comedian Simon Brodkin is trying out new material in his show Xavier on Thursday 27 July. Chinese Boxing (sold out) on Friday, is a one man show about the Boxer Rebellion and China’s attitude to the West, and Sunday sees The Birth of Frankenstein, an Edinburgh Fringe preview from the Maverick Theatre Company.

It is hard work keeping up that sort of turn-around, and much more fun to produce and direct your own shows, but they need both the revenue it brings in and the variety. They want to offer their Chiswick audience a broad range of shows so they keep coming back.

“We want the theatre to be busy and full, with lots on all the time” Simon told The Chiswick Calendar.

“What we want is people coming regularly and being in the habit of checking out what’s on at the Tabard this week.”

The trouble with live theatre is that the audience psychology is the opposite of going to the cinema, where punters want to be one of the first to see a new film as soon as it has been released.

“With theatre people wait”, said Sarah. If a show is on for three or four weeks, people put off coming until the last week, by which time they think the cast will be at their best.

“The trouble is we don’t go to video after,” said Simon. “Once the curtain comes down on the last performance, that’s it.”

Attendance-wise, they are happy if the theatre is 60% full for the one-nighters and 50% full for the long running shows. Money-wise they are doing better than they thought they would be at this point, but they are not exactly flush with cash.

Image above: Cast of Five Children and It

Support from local playwrites and actors

While the one-nighters pay the bills, it is the long running productions which add reputation and give them creative satisfaction. Their in-house productions have been The Last Laugh, Five Children and It, Bell, Book & Candle, Next Door’s Baby and A Critical Stage.

The Last Laugh, about a young director trying to get a play past a censor, was adapted by adapted by playwright Richard Harris, a Chiswick resident who had huge success with the musical Stepping Out in 1984.

Theatre at the Tabard is supported by Richard and other local playwrights Gareth Armstrong, Nick Bromley and Keith Strachan. The Last Laugh was nominated for an Offie for the set design and Five Children & It was nominated for production.

They are up against long-established theatres such as The Roundhouse, the Hackney Empire and the Theatre Royal Stratford East, and specialist children’s theatres such as the Unicorn theatre, the Little Angel theatre and the Polka in Wimbledon, so it is no mean feat to receive a nomination.

Image above: The Last Laugh after party

“Chiswick School students were better behaved than many of the professionals”

They are also re-creating old links and forging new links in the community. Actors Phyllis Logan and Kevin McNally, who live locally, are big supporters. Torin Douglas, director of the Chiswick Book Festival, will be hosting a Q&A after a performance of September’s big show, a production based on Jane Austin’s novel Persuasion, as part of this year’s book festival. And they have welcomed Chiswick School and ArtsEd students into the theatre to perform.

“Chiswick School were great. Better behaved than many of the professionals. They left the dressing room spick and span.”

They have had a few disasters during the year. The worst was that they had to cancel A Little Light Murder after actor Stephen Greif died suddenly after Christmas. The one-man show Britcom was cancelled because of a train strike and one of Avalon’s new comedy talent shows was cancelled because they had only sold a handful of tickets.

Then there was the time when the technicians conscientiously turned off all the electrical switches, including the one for the fridge, so they had to throw away all the ice creams.

Image above: Jenny Eclair; Simon Brodkin

Getting lost on the way from Camberwell

A couple of times comedians have turned up late. I happened to be there for both Jenny Eclair, who explained how she had got lost on her way here, having driven from Camberwell, and Simon Brodkin. Jenny was genuinely distressed to have kept the audience waiting, and full of apology. She was quite thrown by it. Simon seemed like he couldn’t have cared less, almost as if we should expect to have to wait for such a big name to condescend to take the stage.

Jenny doesn’t seem to have much luck in this regard. She Tweeted this week:

“If anyone is coming to my gig tonight could you tell the staff I seem to have locked myself in the dressing room.”

But for the most part the year has gone swimmingly. I am looking forward to Persuasion and to the Christmas show this year, The Secret Garden.

Images above: Kim Ismay in About Bill; Persuasion

Half price tickets

The good news on our part is that Theatre at the Tabard has now joined our Club Card scheme and we will be able to offer half-price tickets for selected dates.

Simon and Sarah are taking a well-earned rest and plan to lie semi-comatose by a pool for a couple of weeks, before restarting with About Bill on Wednesday 30 August, starring Kim Ismay who has starred in countless West End and national tour productions including Wicked, Mamma Mia, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Saturday Night Fever, Acorn Antiques, Singing In The Rain, Lautrec and The Rocky Horror Show as well as appearing in numerous TV dramas.

Subscribers to The Chiswick Calendar newsletter can buy half-price tickets for About Bill on Thursday 31 August and Friday 1 September, using promo code CLUBCARD. Take your club card with you to show at the door.

Subscribers to The Chiswick Calendar newsletter can also buy half-price tickets for Persuasion on Thursday 14 and Friday 15 September, using promo code CLUBCARD. Take your club card with you to show at the door.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar