Interview with James Wren & Mark Lyminster
The Hen & Chickens Theatre Bar own the black box space upstairs but Unrestricted View are the production Company who lease the space and have been resident since 1999. It is run by three actors: Joint Artistic Directors Felicity Wren and James Wren along with Theatre Manager Mark Lyminster. They curate all the events here including dramas, comedy, Camden Fringe, Unrestricted View Film Festival and Edinburgh previews.
James Wren is an actor, who is also a writer, who is also a producer and who is also about to become a director. There is a degree of morphing and this is clearly a place where such things can happen. Their management of the theatre came about by accident. James tells the story: “We had a play here, ‘Shame’. The chap who booked us, who was running the theatre, disappeared, leaving the theatre manageless. A brand-new landlady who didn’t know where he was, asked us if we could hang around for a couple of weeks to help her and we’re still hanging around.”
It’s an understated venue, quietly confident and James is no different. Sitting behind his computer on the other side of the table, he is self-contained but welcoming and friendly. It’s very easy to warm to him. As actors, it seems likely they have an advantage in reading the many unsolicited scripts they receive. James explains: “Felicity is the best dramaturg. I usually take a couple of reads to decide. I don’t know why I like it, I just know I like it. She’s very good at spotting that, which is why I always get her to read mine first!”
In London Pub Theatres interview with Lucy Roslyn, she mentions being discovered by James. Her play THE STATE VS JOHN HAYES had its first showing here before touring. James agrees that “you get the feelings she’s a really exceptionally talented person, you just know.” He continues: “I think we all make mistakes sometimes and sometimes things you’re not sure about turn out to be brilliant and you’re really glad you took a punt, at other times you wonder ‘how did that turn out like that?’ On the other hand, its fringe theatre, it’s all hands-on deck. Most people are good, rarely a bad apple. Sometimes it’s the people, they seem like a really good bunch, and we’ll have a punt on the company rather than the play. It does cultivate relationships, we have a lot of people coming back”.
It’s an opportunity for Unrestricted View to watch them grow, it’s a spawning ground, aiming to help creatives to move up the theatrical ladder. Playwrights wanting to get picked up by Hampstead theatre or the National might like to know that Jack Thorne, did some stuff here years ago, and he’s done extremely well. James says: “You certainly see people pop up here and there, certainly lots of actors, comedians gone on to bigger and better things.”
The theatre space itself is largely black box. James explains: “Most use a suggested scenery, tables, chairs, but we have also had full builds. For one set, one corner was a lighthouse right to ceiling, with a pully system under decking, which revolved the lighthouse. So, people could sit in it, so they could be on the beach outside and we can see them in the lighthouse. We have comedy nights, so the comedians had to use the lighthouse. They really enjoyed it.”
There are lots of comedy nights, with a late show, from new and up and coming to very well established comedians. Frankie Boyle was in last week, and the likes of Sarah Millican also perform here. They have previews for Edinburgh and are also part of Camden fringe during August, seven days a week, six shows a day. James will be at the Edinburgh festival for the whole month and this will be his 15th year. He’s brings things back from the festival. It seems ironic that companies travel from London to Edinburgh Festival especially when Camden fringe is on the door step. James comments “500 hundred miles to stick £10,000 in the bin. At the same time, not everyone comes from London.”
This is a pub theatre which also embraces film. James explains “I’m married to a film person; my wife Emilie is the producer of the BFI London film festival. But also, I’m a film maker too. We’ve recently installed a cinema system upstairs, so we do have indie films too, not backed by studio, up to a million pounds. During the festival, our opening night film was ‘Set Fire to the Stars, with Elijah Wood so was of a standard. We also had Mads Mikkelson’s film ‘Men and Chicken’ - which is why the distributer let us have it (sometimes it’s useful being Hen and Chickens Theatre). The films are global independent, the great things about them is that you don’t have a budget for any kind of effects, purely characterisations and relationships, the story has to be there, so there’s nothing to hide behind. You get some beautiful films - couple from Iran. We try and champion British.”
At this point in the interview, theatre manager Mark Lyminster bounces in with a cheery smile and bags of exuberance. He’s a contrast to James, who is dead pan. They have been friends since they were at drama school together aged 18/19. James writes film scripts and the pair have made three feature films together. James gives the back story about the development of film: “I think it was I’d written a few plays, then got the idea of a short film and having that is a really exciting thing. It’s there, its tangible, once a play’s gone its gone.”
Mark says: “An actor in plays, you rarely get a chance to see them in a bigger space. If in a film, the actor can watch it in a big screen in bed. It’s part of a community of film makers come together, you meet the other film makers.” James elaborates: “People just sat on their own for months smelling of biscuits - they can now do these things, and have a shower. It makes you wash. When you’re film making, it’s being in someone’s bedroom, kitchen, like being in a festival, you meet together to share ideas, you come out.”
They are both still acting. Recently Mark was acting in the ‘Houdini’ tour and panto at Shore theatre. They were both in a film with Joanna Lumley. (They both gush about the lovely Lumley. “Charm itself”. “Gorgeous”.)
They say more about the films they curate: “It’s rare that a short film is light – its robust, emotionally entangling, with quality of storytelling, shot beautifully, and sounds great. We’re often dealing with first time film makers with little knowledge or budget, but telling a story is everything. Similarly, Interesting plays upstairs can have just one chair, if the story is told well, if the performance is there, we buy into it (same with film making). Unrestricted View is about giving people a chance, whether it’s their first production as theatre director or film director, its giving a place to show the quality they can bring.”
The theatre, on the other hand, leans towards light hearted. “Its more modern audiences, so its not Peer Gynt”. James is particularly fond of absurdism such as the Dario Fo, performed by Theatre of Heaven and Hell recently. The pair explain: “There’s a whole spectrum here but its more new writing. You can’t sustain an hour, or hour and a half, about divorce and death. It has to have lots of light moments, relevant moments that people can relate to. Emotional depth needs light and comedy for light relief to make you laugh and cry.”
“It’s people getting out of bed, being artists, creating something, making something happen rather than waiting for an agent to find the work. Age is irrelevant. It’s just people who want to be creative.” The pair are able to pass on their first-hand experience of marketing shows, using brilliant energy and enthusiasm, “people really feed off that”.
There is a lovely informality to the place which is nice for actors, technicians and audiences alike. They often want to chat after a performance and that’s particularly useful for the writers. People who come here for two or three weeks are told “this is your home”. Mark attempts to explain what draws actors to work with them. It’s mainly recommendations but he’s also adamant that a tidy dressing room helps. “As an actor myself, I like to be comfortable and happy, a tidy dressing room – crumbs this is lovely that’s what I’d expect as an actor”. James is dubious about the tidy dressing rooms being key to their success but Mark is adamant that it’s the “same as toilets. If they’re clean you want to eat here”. “In a toilet?” - teases James. It really is like a family here. Right now, James has his paw on his computer and cannot resist sending me an email while we’re sitting together.
They definitely have no trouble agreeing who they want their audiences to be: “We want them to Plentiful!” They get a lot of people coming back to watch stuff, and they particularly enjoy those who are supportive and enthusiastic. They do their best to “grease the wheels of that”. The productions are good quality and the companies rarely leave having lost money. That is a huge achievement in fringe theatre. They have a very reasonable rent especially for the Islington area – others charge more. James adds an aside “I’d never have sand again. We’re still finding some of that and it was 15 years ago, go to bed, wake up in the morning and its sand – and you haven’t been on holiday.”
Just before I’m about to leave they have a few more things to say: “It’s mainly entry level, you don’t know when somebody or something exciting is going to pop along. It’s not the Almeida nor Hampstead. Comedians on this circuit try out new work. People come in groups to see Sarah Milligan. We’re small here so we can have relationships; ten years down the line people are still coming to do a warm up in a proper pub. Frankie Boyle - why’s he still here? Over the years we’ve become friends."
"An agent friend of mine got this idea we’re going to start doing on Sunday afternoons - an all-female film afternoon with pizza and prosecco. They get into their pjs and watch a film together. Hen parties, (Hen and Chickens again). We’re also having open days to get a few companies together, to spend time looking at good options, generating ideas, putting out suggestions. We’re known for somewhere where you can become a producer for first time, can become a director, you can put on a two week run and know you aren’t going to lose money. We can tell people how to market a show.”
Ambitions for the future? James says: “We’re working on a time machine." Mark suggests: “Bring Will back for his opening night”. Indeed, Hen & Chickens theatre is the place where dreams become reality and, I could swear, as I looked around they had both melted into air.
Interviewer: Heather Jeffery
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LONDON PUB THEATRES MAGAZINE LIMITED 7 April 2017
The Hen & Chickens Theatre Bar has had a rebishment in May 2017. Check out our What's On page here
HEN & CHICKENS THEATRE/UNRESTRICTED VIEW
The Hen & Chickens Theatre Bar
109 St. Pauls Road, Highbury Corner, London, N1 2NA
Phone: 020 7704 2001
There is a friendliness and relaxed welcoming atmosphere to the theatre which now also boasts a cinema screen. With just 54 individually raked seats, its intimacy is ideal for comedy, character dramas and film. This wonderful venue has been established for over 25 years and has an excellent reputation. It really is one of London’s hidden gems.
Often two shows a night 7.00 and 9.30, there is a strong leaning towards new writing and comedy. They also have classic theatre, rehearsed readings, scratch nights, musicals, Camden fringe shows and two months of Edinburgh previews every year.
Unrestricted View, the resident Production Company have been producing shows and programming visiting companies for the last fifteen years. They now also have film nights with a Film Festival in April.
Unrestricted View Indie Film festival in April
Unrestricted View are particularly actor-centric. It is run for and by actors, and they are committed to helping creatives to have “the most productive, fun, and inspiring time at our venue”. This has the advantage to audiences that actors and other creatives are more than happy to have a conversation after the show.
A cosy Victorian pub with a theatrical spirit, proudly serving some of Highbury's best pints, from craft beers and ales, to wines from around the world and innovative cocktails. Many an evening you can find the performers celebrating their artistic successes with their audience in the warmth of the candlelit bar. Freshly cooked bar food is available.
The theatre is upstairs at the cosy Victorian pub The Hen & Chickens Theatre Bar on Highbury corner. Situated close to the trendy and eclectic Upper Street in the heart of Islington with its many bars, restaurants and cafes.
Tube: Highbury and Islington Station/Tube. Cross the road and head straight down St Paul's Road and you'll see the pub on the corner.
Bus: 4, 19, 30, 43 and 277 all stop at Highbury Corner.
DID YOU KNOW …
Unrestricted View was set up in 1997 by Felicity & James Wren in order to produce exciting and innovative new theatre, comedy & film.
In 1999 UV became the resident company at The Hen & Chickens Theatre and remains so to this day.
UV was also resident company at Lowdown at The Albany on Great Portland Street 2003-2011 and The Vandella in Shepherds Bush in 2012.