A new kind of theatre is being served up in an old fish and chip shop in Coventry, writes Marion McMullen.
Do you want salt and vinegar with your new play?
A former Midland fish and chip shop is proving a success serving up new drama by writers across the region.
The Shop Front Theatre became the UK’s first professional shop theatre venue when it opened in 2009 and switched from serving chip butties and mushy peas to cutting-edge plays.
The award-winning Theatre Absolute made themselves at home and began organising storytelling sessions, writing gyms and championing the writing talents of new playwrights.
“It’s the perfect setting,” says Theatre Absolute’s writer and director Chris O’Connell. “People walk past and pop in to see what we’re doing and you feel part of the city.”
Actor Graeme Hawley, best known for his appearances as John Stape in Coronation Street, has worked with Theatre Absolute and returned to officially open the new theatre venue in Coventry. Even losing their Arts Council funding has not stopped the pioneering work from going ahead.
“We’re busier than ever,” says Chris. “It’s not been easy, but we have work right into next year.”
They have commissions for new work to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War in 2014 and there is a Christmas Pop Up Shop planned on November 24. A giant blackboard on the theatre’s wall also tells people what a donation will buy them – £5 keeps the lights on, £20 supports a lamplight reading and £100 funds a literary workshop for young people.
A tenner helps towards funding one of the popular writing gyms that help aspiring scribes put their ideas on the page and develop their story ideas into a script.
It has led to performer, teacher and director Naomi Said being able to add playwright to her list of credits. She recently performed with Blur singer Damon Albarn before 2,000 people in his opera Dr Dee in London, but has now returned home to the Midlands to appear before a much smaller audience ... 40 people a show.
The 26-year-old is premiering her first play The Wedge, which started as a writing gym exercise.
“I’m appearing in the city arcade I used to visit with my nan and my mates,” she says. “I’ve performed at the London Coliseum, and worked on various productions at the RSC, but this old fish and chip shop is the most unexpectedly inspiring and liberating place I have ever worked in.”
The Wedge sees a young woman forced to confront a secret from her past.
Naomi developed the play through the workshop and a reading was held at China Plate’s First Bite festival at the MAC in Birmingham. It was also shown at Camden’s People Theatre in London earlier this year.
Naomi has been working on the play with Chris O’Connell and he is directing her work.
“Making new work is almost always about taking chances,” says Chris. “Naomi is both writing and performing her first piece for the stage in the unique and highly charged atmosphere of the Shop Front Theatre.
“She is about to go on a huge journey with her first play and it is brilliant to be making it at the shop in Coventry.”
Naomi, who grew up in Coventry, joined Coventry Youth Operetta Group when she was 11 and at 15 was appearing on the city stage at the Belgrade Theatre in Willy Russell’s Our Day Out.
Her career has seen her work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Frantic Assembly, National Theatre Wales, The Old Vic, The Bush, Regent’s Park, Opera Holland Park, English National Opera, Cheltenham Everyman, Stephen Joseph Theatre, ThickSkin and Stand+Stare.
“The first time I went to the Shop Front Theatre was for a writing workshop with Chris,” she remembers. “It was completely liberating. A blank canvas with nothing to rely on but words and actors. It’s quite an atmosphere in there.
‘‘And your most rudimentary lights rigged up on stands in the corner and a borrowed PA system is about as technical as you can get with the limited resources. It’s brilliant.”
* The Wedge runs at Shop Front Theatre, City Arcade, Coventry, until Saturday. Box office 0845 680 1926 or online via www.boxboffice.com