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Award-winning NEIL MCPHERSON talks candidly to Tom Wicker

The passionate, witty and wonderfully irreverent McPherson talks about his job, his views on independent theatre and his loathing of plays by accountants.

The wedge-shaped Finborough Theatre, which stands like a sentry decked out in green at the intersection of two roads ten minutes away from Earls Court tube, is buzzing. It’s a Friday evening in early March and the unaffectedly stylish downstairs bar is filled with the relaxed chatter of people looking forward to the weekend ahead. Before that, though, they’ll be decanting their glasses of wine into plastic tumblers and heading upstairs to see the first production in London of Caryl Churchill’s hymn to the land, Fen, for 30 years.

I’m here on behalf of to meet artistic director Neil McPherson, the human dynamo who has powered the Finborough through an incredibly successful period. The theatre’s most recent play, Emlyn William’s Accolade, was a smash hit. Critics fell over themselves to lavish praise on this tale of celebrity double-life, not performed since the 1950s but as fresh today as then. The New York Times loved it so much it reviewed it twice.

McPherson’s programming is always exciting, unpredictable and enriching. And his instinct for excellence in the off-West End arena has seen him discover directors, playwrights and actors who have gone on to become major players in the theatre world. It’s unsurprising, then, that he should have attracted a clutch of awards during his career, including perhaps the greatest accolade of all – Best Artistic Director at The Offies 2011.

Once the bell has rung and he’s made certain that everyone’s safely in their seats for Fen, the passionate, witty and wonderfully irreverent McPherson joins me at the bar. Sipping a Coca Cola he tells me about his job, his views on independent theatre, his loathing of plays by accountants and trying very hard not to get Kate Winslet wet.

TW: First off, congratulations on winning Best Artistic Director at The Offies a couple of weeks ago. You’ve won so many awards in the past couple of years, does winning another one mean much to you now?
NM: Oh, yes, of course it does. We’re very grateful; we’ve done wonderfully. We were just a bit surprised because, yes, there were many good shows [here] last year but the ones before that were equally as good. So it’s a bit like buses, with everything coming at once! Of course, we’re waiting for the backlash now.

Part of the thing here is that you work very hard and you’re not paid very much. I last had a proper holiday in 2001 and a weekend last year when I didn’t answer any emails. So things like this [award], they make you feel like you’re doing a good job – that it’s all worthwhile.

It’s interesting that you use “we” rather than “I”.
That’s the royal “we”!

Really? So how do things work at the Finborough?
Well, I’m the only paid member of staff. Everyone else is a volunteer. Our longest surviving volunteer is Alex Marker, our resident designer, who’s been here since 2001 and wins amazing plaudits for his work. And then there’s a large team of people who don’t stay that long, from three months to a couple of years. So when I say “we”, I mean me and all of those volunteers who make everything possible.

One of things we’re proudest of is our assistant director programme. Of the directors who started with us, well, one is assistant director here, one is now assistant director at the Donmar Theatre, one is director of new plays at Theatre Clwyd in Wales, one is artistic director of their own theatre in Oxfordshire and another is staff director at the National Theatre.

So what does your specific job consist of?
Everything! Obviously, the biggest bit is choosing the plays; actually, probably bigger than that is then making sure that those plays are of a quality. We’re very anxious that we’re not looked on as ‘fringey’. We produce half of our own work and half with companies. The difficult bit is making sure that the quality of those visiting companies is up to the standard of everything else. So, we’re strict on casting, we’re strict on how your poster and your programme look and that you behave honourably and decently to everybody, even if you’re not paying them equity minimum. And on top of that [I’m responsible for] marketing, finance, refurbishing the building, and so on.

I’m sometimes amused when I go to other theatres and they’ve got a list of 80 staff in the back of their programme and I’m doing a bit of all those [jobs]. But you know that’s sort of what makes it fun. You can develop a new script, get bored with that; do the accounts, get bored with that; clean the toilet, get bored with that; then paint something.

You say you want to avoid seeming to be ‘fringey’. What does that mean?
A lot of fringe is absolutely f**king terrible, isn’t it? If you want to make a lot of money you can easily do that on the fringe. I could charge six to seven thousand pounds a week to rent this space. I could be doing terrible plays by retired accountants. Or [putting on a show] by an actor who hasn’t trained, has done some evening classes, wants to do Hamlet and has the money to pay for it. All that kind of thing I loathe, and everyone else on the fringe loathes, because it drags us down. That’s not what we’re about.

So when did you get started in the business?
Well, I began as an actor. I did three years at drama school, acted for about a year, then decided that, actually, it was a silly job – for me at least – then ran the New End Theatre for nine months, produced for about a year then got the job here, where I’ve been for 12 years now.

Was there a specific point at which you realised you didn’t want to be an actor?
Yes, being dressed as a polar bear in front of 500 screaming children at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and thinking, “You know, actually, this is kind of daft.” [In my role now] I can do a lot more. And when somebody I’ve discovered, whether they’re a director or a writer like Laura Wade or James Graham, makes it big or an actor’s come here and gone on to win an Olivier, well, that’s nice.

What makes independent theatre more than a vanity exercise for bad actors or would-be playwrights?
People often ask me what the difference is between a vanity project and a sensible investment in the future. The only really honest answer is: “If it’s good.” So part of my job is weeding out the really terrible scripts from the good ones and going from there.

What would you say distinguishes off-West End theatre from West End venues and shows?
NM: West End versus off-West End... Obviously we don’t have the money, but we’re trying to work to those standards. We’d love to be paying everyone equity minimum, what they’re worth. Practically that’s not possible. But what we can do is put on a play with a cast of 28, or a play that may not be commercially viable elsewhere but could be commercially viable here for four weeks. If, as a result, the actors are getting casting agents, you know, from their point of view it’s worthwhile. Take Accolade [directed by Blanche McIntyre and starring Aiden Gillet and Saskia Wickham]: it had a low wage – actually, an expenses thing – but Nicholas Hytner came, Richard Eyre, The New York Times came, David Tennant came...

Do you think that you can take more risks, be more adventurous, than if you were bound by issues like minimum expenditure?
Yeah, but to be really honest, I just put on what I like and hope other people do as well – and so far they seem to! I think Stephen Daldry once said of the Gate Theatre, “The worst thing that could happen would be if we got funding.” Because then you end up limited, stuck doing a play with a cast of three [that] casting agents won’t come and see because they’re only seeing three people rather than ten at a time. [Here] our average cast size, over the year, is about nine.

Plays such as Accolade, which become critical and commercial successes, must be the reason why you do the job.
The thing about Accolade was that I’d been giving it to directors for the past five to six years and they all went “nah”. And one of the best things [since] has been the emails going either, “You bastard, I wish I’d done it” or “Oh, you were right, I was wrong.”

You’ve said that finance is always a challenge. But are there any other major obstacles when putting on a show?
No, actually it’s all about the money. It really is. You know, when people are campaigning against Arts Council cuts I’m with them, of course, but part of me is thinking, “Just give me one percent of what some other theatres get.” With that one percent we could do amazing things. The Emlyn Williams was a big success, five stars, but if I’d had more money I’d probably have done a season of Emlyn Williams plays. I probably could still have made that happen, but not at the level of quality I’d have wanted it to be at.

Does the Finborough have definable aims? Does it have a mission statement?
Our artistic policy is very, very strict: it [has to be] new writing and rediscoveries. But nearly everybody in the world says that their artistic policy is new writing and rediscoveries; so our artistic policy is new writing and obscure rediscoveries. We have a rule that [a play] must be from the nineteenth or twentieth century – we don’t do anything before 1800 – and it can’t have been performed in London in the past 25 years. So, that immediately wipes out A Doll’s House or The Birthday Party. Nothing wrong with those plays but you can see them anywhere.

The idea is that you’ll come here and see something absolutely brand new, or you’ll see something so old it’s actually brand new again. I always argue that if there’s nobody alive on the planet to have seen it then it counts as new writing. One of my favourites was Our Miss Gibbs, a musical that hadn’t been done since 1908, full of jokes about the London Olympics and cash for honours. Audiences in 2007 were absolutely wetting themselves over the same gags as a hundred years ago. You know, I couldn’t do just new writing. I’d get very bored. And there isn’t enough good new writing out there yet.

But when you are seeking new writing where do you look? Do you accept unsolicited work?
We accept unsolicited scripts where possible, but one of the things we don’t like is rejects. A few fringe theatres go to the Bush Theatre or the Royal Court Theatre and say, “What don’t you want?” We’d rather discover our own writers and work with them for as long as it takes. James Graham is the best example. He sent us an unsolicited script, utterly unperformable at 300 pages long. We spent two years working with him on it, put it on, commissioned the next one and have done one of his plays every year since.

Is there a particular skill to identifying a good play?
There’s a spark. [It’ll often] be lost in a morass of awful structure and terrible dialogue, but you can spot who can do it; you can tell who has it. The x-factor, if you will.

In the 12 years you’ve been at the Finborough, what have been the best, worst and funniest moments?
Dear God! Well, the worst was the Hamlet. There really was a Hamlet, for one week – it was that or bankruptcy – by an actor who was on The Bill. Bless him. He couldn’t remember the lines. It was after that that I decided I’d rather go dark than take something for the money.
We’ve had lots of great moments, often the small things. [For example] we did Soldiers, which has a debate in Act Two about the ethics of aerial bombing in the Second World War, in Dresden, in Hamburg. Well, we had people coming out of that screaming at each other about Iraq, sitting in the pub and banging their fists on the tables as they argued about it. Small things like that make it all worthwhile, when you know you’ve affected someone. Seeing the people I’ve developed going off and getting commissions, that’s wonderful too.

And have there been any funny or absurd moments?
Oh my God. Well, the staircase flooding – that was fun. That was quite a while ago. [The Finborough has] a flat roof that, when it rains, fills up like a swimming pool until the water breaks through the skylight. This happened when Kate Winslet was here to see a show. She had to walk up under an umbrella as four feet of water poured down. She said it was worse than Titanic.

What do you hope an audience will get out of coming to see a show at the Finborough?
Well, somebody once said, being snide but I took it as a compliment, “You do war, genocide, disease and the odd camp musical.” And I thought, “Yeah, actually that’s true, we do.” It sounds wanky but if you didn’t think you could change the world you wouldn’t do it, would you? What we very specifically don’t do is plays about 20 or 30-something relationship problems. If your girlfriend has left you we’re really sorry but take it somewhere else!

Most of our stuff, apart from the camp musicals – and there’s nowt wrong with them now and again – is hard-hitting or political. It’ll make you go away and think. The BNP play we did last year, we were having death threats. I always say that if you don’t have a firebomb threat every couple of months you’re doing it wrong.

That would certainly add a spring to my step. So, what do theatregoers who step through these doors and don’t get completely waylaid by the bar have to look forward to next?
We’ve just started the [three-month] season, ‘In Their Place’, of works by women playwrights. We’ve got Fen by Caryl Churchill, new off-Broadway musical Bed and Sofa, with music by Polly Penn, and Naomi Wallace’s new one [And I and Silence]. The Sunday and Monday slots are all devoted to Colleen Murphy, a Canadian writer who’s never been seen in the UK. We think it’s about time she was, so the idea is to put her work on the map.

Other than that, in July we’ll have Vibrant, our new writing festival. That’ll be a four-week run of a brand new play and a series of stage readings by our playwrights and residents from the literary department’s writers’ group, as well as a few other writers we’ve worked with a lot who we want to show off.


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DOMINIC GERRARD talks about building up to the challenge of a one-man CHRISTMAS CAROL!

GRASSROOTS SHAKESPEARE LONDON's Siobhan Daly on casting the Bard's spell over the LION AND UNICORN THEATRE this Christmas

Lara Bianca Pilcher talks us through her journey from Australia to singing I DO! I DO! at Riverside Studios!

Playwright Roger Mortimer-Smith tells Tom Wicker about bringing new thriller TRAUMA to the WHITE BEAR

Nirjay Mahindru and Iqbal Khan talk to Tom Wicker about reclaiming the past in GOLGOTHA

Sarah Pitard talks to Tom Wicker about new repertory company PARADIGM THEATRE and the challenges of adapting Oscar Wilde

Alison Pollard-Mansergh talks to Tom Wicker about bringing FAULTY TOWERS THE DINING EXPERIENCE to London

Mike Elliston talks to Tom Wicker about pop culture and his new play, TRAILER/Trash

Daniel Brennan talks to Tom Wicker about putting audiences first in the Off Cut Festival

DAVID COTTIS discusses cup cakes, Orson Welles and IT'S ALL TRUE at The White Bear

Tom Wicker speaks to MOLTON STUDIOS about supporting new production TWO-HEADED and the challenges facing younger theatre companies today.

Roland Smith talks to Tom Wicker about THEATRE DELICATESSEN


HANNAH JOSS talks to Tom Wicker about THE DEVIL INSIDE HIM at The White Bear

Tom Wicker talks to THE WRONG CROWD about The Girl With The Iron Claws

ALEXANDER ZELDIN and KIMBERLEY SYKES talk to Tom Wicker about staging Bernard-Marie Koltès

Tom Wicker speaks with first-time playwright ALISON EVANS about her controversial debut, The Supper Party....

MICHAEL PENNINGTON talks to Tom Wicker about his new book SWEET WILLIAM

Tom Wicker talks to Kamaal Hussain and Rachel Marwood about FOUR DAYS OF GRACE at The New Diorama

2012 OFFIE WINNERS ANNOUNCED at a fabulous award ceremony at Theatre Royal Stratford East................

Director ED DICK talks to Tom Wicker about reviving Philip Ridley's THE PITCHFORK DISNEY.....

Cardboard Citizens' artistic director Adrian Jackson tells Tom Wicker what inspired his new play, A FEW MAN FRIDAYS....

THE 2011 FINALISTS FOR THE OFFIE will be announced on the 6th February!

Harry Potter star ALFIE ENOCH makes his professional stage debut...

The LOST Theatre Company 27th Annual One Act Festival is open for submissions until 11 March 2012

Nouska Hanly reports on the launch of PARK THEATRE's fundraising campaign before opening in Autumn 2012

Time Out announces a good year for Off West End theatre in this week's edition....


REBECCA ATKINSON-LORD and RACHEL BRISCOE talk to Tom Wicker about their vision for OVALHOUSE

Tom Wicker talks to Guillaume Pigé and Adam Taylor about THE GAMBLER at The Space..

MESHAUN LABRONE talks to Tom Wicker about exploring the life of legendary American rapper 2Pac

CHRIS LOSCHER and MIKE LEES talk to Tom Wicker about the UK premiere of COUNT OEDERLAND......

"What we do isn't polite and it's not middle-class - those things are, I think, death to theatre." KERRY MICHAEL from Theatre Royal Stratford East talks to Tom Wicker


Tom Wicker talks to HAMISH MACDOUGALL about THE LIGHTS at The Spring

In this second installment, MARK SHENTON talks to Tom Wicker about producing, reviewing and the theatres he loves...

Tom Wicker interviews theatre critic and journalist MARK SHENTON about the changing role of theatre criticism...

Tom Wicker interviews RICK BLAND in THICK at The New Diorama from 13 September

FREE workshops in the Olivier theatre for actors and directors at the POEL EVENT 2011


BEN OCCHIPINTI talks to Tom Wicker about Mack & Mabel at Greenwich Theatre....

SOUTHWARK PLAYHOUSE needs your help NOW to lobby and tweet for their survival!

Amy Tez talks about FOUR DOGS AND A BONE with Tom Wicker

WILTON'S to remain open - hurrah!!

PATRICIA CAMPER to leave Talawa Theatre Company


WILTONS are turned down by the Heritage Lottery Fund!!

GIANT OLIVE THEATRE CO talks to Tom Wicker about celebrating women playwrights, performers, directors and designers as part of the Gaea Theatre Festival at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre.....

TOM WICKER talks to the creators of an uncompromising new play about the death of Baha Mousa...

RoAm Productions and Madison Theatre Company talk to Tom Wicker about RUMOURS.....

THRILL ME transfers to Charing Cross Theatre from 17 May to 11 June!

Tom Wicker talks to JAMES HADDRELL about the new Emerging Artists season, Greenwich's break with the past and the problem with pigeons....

CATRIONA MCLAUGHLIN tackles life and directing while staging IRISH BLOOD, ENGLISH HEART....


How far would you go for love? THRILL ME tests you until 30th April at Tristan Bates

JOSIE ROURKE appointed new Artistic Director of The Donmar

Award-winning NEIL MCPHERSON talks candidly to Tom Wicker

HOMOS PROMOS: Peter Scott-Presland talks to Tom Wicker



Sisters Cindy and Sheila Rhyme are updating Alice in Wonderland at The Courtyard....

MATTHEW CRITCHFIELD and JAZZ FLAHERTY talk about The Black Death, conspiracy and friendship...............

OFFIE SHORTLIST ANNOUNCED after a day of contention, controversy and too much coffee.....

ANTHONY ABUAH talks about putting his heart and soul into writing....


Interview with writer Philip Ridley


JAMES BURN introduces Legacy Burns

HOW NOT TO RUN A FRINGE THEATRE Part 1 in an endless new series.....

POLIS LOIZOU talks about life, art and CLOTHES TO FALL APART IN

Glenn Chandler and Scouts In Bondage

What is Paul Clarkson doing at The Union?

Bill Bankes-Jones talks about Salad Days and surfing

Carole Carpenter on tour with Jane Austen

Dan Barnard is SHOOTING RATS at an epic new venue

Zimbabwe-born David Dinnell talks about HOW TO COOK A COUNTRY

Director Sarah Norman talks to us from The Finborough

Amy Molloy Interviewed (appearing in Kitty & Damnation at the Lion & Unicorn from 11 Aug 2009 to 12 Sep 2009)

Charlotte Gwinner talks about ANGLE

Kenneth Emson talks about Whispering Happiness and what inspires him....


Paolo Rotondo talks from New Zealand

Writer Stephen M Hunt wishes he had written Slueth


Andrew Olay talks about inspiration, character amd Tom Courtney

Ellie Turner performs with LOVE&MADNESS

Sondheim's Saturday Night with Helena Blackman

Alistair Green directs The Thingumywotsit at The Hen & Chickens

Racky Plews directs Into The Woods

Robert Lloyd Parry is at Baron's Court

Interview with The Umbilical Brothers at The Leicester Square Theatre

Interview with Iain Pears at The Riverside Studios

Interview with Tim Roseman directing Overspill

Interview with Melanie Wilson

Interview with Gillian Plowman, author of Yours Abundantly, From Zimbabwe

Interview with Alex Helfrecht

Interview with Michael Gieleta

Interview with director Rhys Thomas

Interview with writer James Graham

Theatre Student Patricia Low posts her Malaysia Blog

Sabina Arthur performs in Under The Veil

Fin Kennedy talks about UNSTATED

Interview with Andrew Keatley

Interview with Ben Hales

Interview with Ali Taylor

Interview with Matt Ball

Interview with Tim Fountain

Interview with Glyn Maxwell

Interview with writer Coda Quashie

Interview with Sarah Mann

Interview with Yolanda Mpele

Interview with Howard Barker

Interview with Brian Timoney

Interview with Laura Stevens

Interview with John Sandy

Interview with Philly Greenwood

Interview with Dean Stalham

Interview with Jack McNamara

Interview with Caroline Partridge

Meet People Show artist Gareth Brierley

Interview with George Mann

Meet Phillip Brook, star of Uncle Barry at the Blue Elephant

Interview with Fin Kennedy

Interview with James Graham

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown V

Interview with Cath Whitefield, now appearing at The Gate

Interview with Lavern Archer

Royal Court Announces Autumn Season

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown IV

Marketing Managers on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown III

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown II

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

Arcola to Create World's First Carbon Neutral Theatre

Interview with Nell Leyshon, Writer of Glass Eels at the Hampstead Theatre

A New Start for the Southwark Playhouse

The Mark Shenton Show

Theatre has moved on - whatever we critics think logo
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