Ham&High Podcast: Upstairs at the Gatehouse’s John Plews on a life in theatre and the challenge of lockdown
PUBLISHED: 07:00 29 August 2020
This week’s Ham&High Podcast features John Plews, who runs Upstairs at the Gatehouse and is chair of the Society of Independent Theatres.
A theatre director, musicals fanatic and a self-confessed “Titanorac”, for more than 20 years John Plews has been putting on shows and supporting young talent at Upstairs at the Gatehouse with his wife, Katie.
Currently awaiting news of government funding, John says the theatre has enjoyed “tremendous support” from the public during this difficult time.
Upstairs at the Gatehouse has never had Arts Council funding, so the process of applying has been a new experience and John praised a training session to help with that, run by Camden Council.
“We’ve put in for a certain amount of money to help us through,” he says. “Now, the dates that they’ve asked us to put into our form is the October 1 to March 31 so we’ve had to try to forecast how much we will need to keep the theatre going in those six months. Unfortunately they’re not going to give us the results of who gets the money until October 5 and so planning those six months is quite difficult, because are we going to plan to get all our staff back and put on shows?”
He added: “If we get the grant, it’ll be lovely. If we don’t, we’ll work something out.”
As well as running the venue, John is chair of SIT (the Society of Independent Theatres) and says most of its members have had to have some sort of fundraising drive.
“We were closed on March 16, and after that we had no income, and we haven’t had any to date. The knock-on effect is huge over all the people that supply us - set builders, electricians - all those people that just supply us. It’s not just us of course, it’s the whole industry.”
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The pandemic came 35 years after John and Katie began staging shows as a team, with their company, Ovation Productions, and more than 20 years after they settled at the Highgate theatre.
“By the time the 90s came along we thought we’d need somewhere to do all this without having to travel around the country,” he says. “So we looked at various buildings and the Gatehouse, the upstairs portion, was derelict at that time and we looked at that and thought: ‘What a lovely place.’”
Over the years Ovation has supported and given opportunities to young directors and producers, and indulged in John and Katie’s love of musicals.
“I’d worked years beforehand in smaller theatres and I just love the idea of fringe - whatever you want to call them fringe/pub theatres/independent theatres - where the audience can be very close to the performers,” says John.
“We can take big musicals - what’s generally thought of as big musicals - and put them on in a small space. This Christmas gone, we produced 42nd Street. That is one of the biggest musicals around. When it was it the West End they had a cast of 54 or something, and 30 in the orchestra, and of course we did it with a dozen wonderful actors/singers/dancers, and six in the band.
“I’m sure a lot of your listeners will have been to our shows and seen Anything Goes or Top Hat. Singing in the Rain we did and we flooded the place every night. It’s the last song in act one when the lead sings Singing In the Rain and, halfway through, the heavens open. Everyone is ‘wow, it’s raining in this tiny theatre’.”
John clearly has a taste for adventurous set design and staging.
In 2012, tying in with John’s obsession with all things Titanic, the team created a play call Iceberg Right Ahead. The ship’s lookout tower was built out of the theatre’s lighting tower, part of the deck was made and two replica lifeboats were constructed.
For his play Flat Out, a farce in the style of a Ray Cooney farce, John brought in someone who job it was to refurbish homes to create the flat of the title - and then the designer put in the peeled wallpaper and other touches to make it as dilapidated as the script required.
“I’m sure that any director, any producer will tell you that putting it all together is most of the fun of producing a show. It all leads up to that first night.”
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