The story of the Tricycle begins with a drink in a pub

Bridget Galton speaks to Shirley Barrie and Ken Chub, the founders of the Tricycle

CANADIAN couple Shirley Barrie and Ken Chubb were high school sweethearts who became secondary school teachers then started writing and directing theatre in Canada.

In 1971, they came to England to study directing at drama school but, disillusioned with the course, they quit after a term.

As Shirley says: “Ken wanted to learn as much about theatre as he could and began attending lunchtime theatres. He happened to go to the Pindar of Wakefield pub on Gray’s Inn Road on a lunchtime when the performing company had packed it in.”

Having a drink with the publican, Ken commented that if he had access to such a great space, he’d make it work. The publican said he was free to go ahead. They decided to go for it and produced a series of one-act plays that hadn’t been seen in England and came up with the name Wakefield Tricycle Company.”

Over the next eight years, the company performed at the King’s Head, the Bush, the Soho Poly and the Open Space, touring new plays and plays for children extensively throughout England, Scotland, Wales and even to France and Holland. Ironically, they never played Wakefield.

In a season at the King’s Head, they commissioned and produced Adrian Mitchell’s Hoagy, Bix And Wolfgang Beethoven Bunkhaus, which finally persuaded Brent to support the Tricycle Theatre. They moved into the current building in Kilburn High Road in 1980. Four years later, they handed over to Nicolas Kent as artistic director. Bridget Galton asks them how the whole enterprise came about.

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How did you both come to found The Tricycle and persuade everyone to support it?

We had had the idea of finding a home for the Wakefield Tricycle Company for some time. With Eric Twiname, we had approached the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea about putting a theatre under the arches of the motorway at Ladbroke Grove. Ultimately that Council wasn’t willing to put money into the project but it gave us a base of experience and insight into what was needed.

Ken and I started to look closer to home. We’d lived in Brent since the early days of the Wakefield Tricycle Company – and discovered that Brent was interested in the establishment of a theatre in the borough. We went through a long process of courting local councillors – and a lot of credit needs to go to then Councillor Terry Hanafin, who became a fan, brought groups of Councillors to a season of shows we produced at the Open Space and at the King’s Head, and stick-handled our proposal through the long political process at Brent.

Ray Beswick, then responsible for Culture at Brent, showed us a number of potentially available buildings. The minute we stepped inside the Forester’s Hall – we knew this was the place! It was divided up into multiple offices with partitions – but the outline of the small proscenium arch and the lovely vaulted ceiling was still there. It felt right. In an added stroke of poetic justice – the room that was to become the Tricycle Theatre main office, was the room where Shirley had come with a group of tenants from our former apartment on Shoot Up Hill to face a rent tribunal a few years previously.

What was your artistic policy and what was the first show you put on?

Our policy was to be a theatre in the community and reflective of that community, through the production of new work. Because of the cultural makeup of Brent at the time, we had a particular interest in promoting plays of interest to West Indian, South Asian and Irish, as well as English audiences. We also actively promoted plays by and for women and produced work for young audiences, as well as programming theatre workshops and events for youth.

The theatre opened on September 16, 1980 with Samba, a play we commissioned from local writer, Michael Abensetts.

What were the challenges you faced while you were running the venue?

• Having bigger dreams than pocketbooks

• Building an audience with limited resources

• Political backlash. The theatre became a political football both locally and nationally as the balance of power on the local council changed and Thatcherism took hold.

What are the highlights and fondest memories of your time at the Tricycle?

* Being instructed by Tim Foster on how to tie the knots on the cords holding the blue canvas panels in place in the theatre. (Yes – there was a lot of hands-on loving labour involved)

* The opening. Michael Abensetts looking elegant and nervous, Ken in a suit for the first time in years, Maureen Simpson, our community liaison officer, being ten places at once.

*Martin Cook and Shirley doing last minute clean-ups as the wonderfully quirky all-women band Cunning Stunts played on the Kilburn High Road and the first audience began to arrive.

* Our small children happily co-opted to coil electrical cables and sort gels on Tricycle production strike nights.

* Everything about Bob Mason’s Love in Vain and Shirley’s Jack Sheppard’s Back.

* Working with wonderful performers like Pauline Black, John Castle, Neil Pearson, Adrian Mitchell, Norman Beaton, Prunella Scales, Janet Suzman, Jenny Jules etc.etc.

* Ken Livingston holding meetings on Saturday mornings in the bar.

* Meeting with a group of women picketing the theatre because of an art exhibition - but who also shared their concern about taking a stand against the one welcoming, safe place on the Kilburn High Road where they could come with friends and spend the evening.

* The sense of ownership that young people took in the theatre, moving from the youth theatre programmes into being ushers, and then, when they were old enough, proudly ‘graduating’ into working in the bar and even on to the stage.

After leaving the Tricycle Theatre in 1984, Ken moved into television and produced Elphida for Channel 4. Returning to Canada, he organized a series of writing workshops in major cities across the country, attracting minority writers to write for television. He is now a story and script editor for film and TV as well as teaching film and television writing. Shirley divided her time between arts administration in Canada and from 1989-2003 was co-artistic director of Straight Stitching Productions which produced plays based on the experiences and stories of people whose lives are usually not reflected in the theatre. Since 2003 Shirley has combined writing for the theatre with script and story editing for film and television projects and is the President of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.