Jessica Hepburn (above) tells Jo Reynolds about the new Lyric Hammersmith.
What brought you to the area?
Working at the Lyric, but I’ve been coming here since I was a teenager.
How long have you worked here?
For 12 years – running it for the last 8. It’s in my blood. I had to kill everyone above me to get the job.
What do you like about the area?
It’s a real place – a diverse community – which means we attract a diverse audience. The Lyric is an egalitarian place.
What do you dislike about it?
King Street is in desperate need of regeneration and at last it’s starting. We’re excited to be doing our bit. Culture makes communities and I want the Lyric to be at the heart of this community.
What’s the history of the theatre?
It was originally built in 1895 by Frank Matcham, who also built the Palladium. The Lyric has since moved. Back then, the accepted view is that it was where WHSmith is now. In the ‘60s, the council tried to knock it down to build Kings Mall, but there was such an uproar they agreed to move it to where it is now. The original Victorian theatre was dismantled and
recreated within the Kings Mall complex. It shouldn’t work but it absolutely does.
What’s the Lyric known for?
To me, the Lyric is about developing the next generation. Our main house has 550 seats, bigger than the Royal Court or the Young Vic. Our USP is that we’re a producing theatre. We make plays, new and different and quirky. I’m 100% committed to
running a tight ship but we have to take risks. No one knows the alchemy of art. We’re trying to do something groundbreaking with our Secret Theatre, our new company of actors. We’ve taken them on for two years and we’re doing things differently.
What’s different about Secret Theatre?
Traditionally, you choose a play, cast it, rehearse for 4-5 weeks, have a week’s preview and then run it for maybe 6 weeks. Our company rehearses for longer. We have 5 men, 5 women, two black, one disabled. That forces you to find more interesting work. The company did ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ with no accents and Blanche was played by a disabled actress.
It wasn’t a political statement, but people saw the play in a new light.
What new talent have you fostered?
Harold Pinter’s ‘The Birthday Party’ was launched here. It was panned by the critics and only ran for 7 shows.
The story goes that Pinter arrived late for the last show. When he asked them to let him in because he was the writer, they said: “You poor thing.” During my tenure, ‘Ghost Stories’ (co-written by and starring Andy Nyman) started here before spending a year in the West End. ‘Metamorphosis’ started here and went all around the world.
What’s the building work that’s going on now?
It’s what we call our Capital Project. There’ll be a new two-storey extension, the Reuben Foundation Wing, that will house music, theatre and media facilities, a new café and rehearsal plus office space. It’s the theatre’s first major facelift in 30 years.
Have the building works been a drama?
It’s a complete labour of love. There’ve been many times when it’s looked unlikely. Even now it’s actually
happening I still have my moments. It’s such a challenge. We’re trying to create an iconic cultural building for West London.
What plays do you think every child should see?
Every child should have the opportunity to go to live theatre. I’m not saying it should always be Shakespeare but certainly some live performance. My relationship with Shakespeare is sometimes ambivalent. Clearly Shakespeare is Shakespeare but I can see that an eight-year-old forced to watch four hours of ‘Hamlet’ might be put off. We did a version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and it was magical: the kids loved it.
Do you like panto?
I love panto. We do one every year. I have 500 kids downstairs as we speak watching ‘Jack and The Beanstalk’ and they’re screaming their hearts out. I’m a populist at heart, perhaps an esoteric populist. I hate theatre that bores you.
What panto character are you most like?
I’d be a good baddie, a baddie with a good heart. I don’t suffer fools, but I hope my team would say I’m strong, fun, caring.
Is theatre important?
Theatre is one of the things that makes Britain great. We’re known worldwide for our theatre. But there is a view that art is elitist and doesn’t need public funding, that theatre, music, and dance aren’t important. We’re trying to communicate that the arts make a community.