Celebrated writer Alan Ayckbourn pops up regularly on stages and curriculums all over the UK, but until this month his 90-minute haunting play Snake in the Grass had only been performed once in the UK before – nine years ago – and never before in London.
“I tried to get that play put on so many times…” swears Lucy Bailey, director of the play’s London debut, currently showing at The Print Room, where she is Artistic Director. She enthuses about the script and how it gripped her, “it was a real page turner”, she says. When I consider the nature of the stage – which is always turning – and how many directors dedicate their lives to engaging audiences through their productions, I start to get a sense of the excitement a bookmark-resistant script must evoke. I start to get a sense too, of the frustration of happening upon such a gem, without the opportunity to pursue it.
What is more difficult to get a sense of though, is Bailey coming up against such a challenge. Her CV boasts credits from the cream of theatre, musical theatre and opera. She has directed a number of productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company – most recently the critically lauded Julius Caesar – and has also directed for the English National Opera and Glyndebourne Touring Opera. She works with writing new, ancient and everything in between, and has presented it in playhouses up and down the country. This summer, her production of The Beggar’s Opera will bound into the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park.
Above and beyond all of this, whilst at Oxford University and before her career even took off, she convinced Samuel Beckett to allow her to direct the world premiere of his poem ‘Lessness’ – despite him apparently not being fussed by the design. How on earth anyone can turn down this kind of rhetoric is beyond me, and her charming nature does little to clarify the matter. Of course, Bailey isn’t one to give up, and out of her ‘where there’s a play there’s a way’ tenacity and her collaboration with Anda Winters, sprung The Print Room, which opened late last year.
To say that The Print Room has been a big success so far might be surprising for some – even the most avid theatregoer may well have never heard of the pocket-sized playhouse nestled in Notting Hill. It is the epitome of discreet – the antithesis of the garish lights of the West End. “If I was going to run a venue, I wanted to do so in a way that wouldn’t conflict with my needs as a Mum” explains Lucy. “Anda and I both have many commitments, and have really focused on creating a performance space that doesn’t need back-to-back programming.”
The pair have achieved the perfect balance – a venue that can hide but not be forgotten. They have virtually no marketing budget so they gently remind locals of its presence each time a new show begins by personally slipping notices through their doors. It works: Snake in the Grass has played to sell out audiences and has just extended its run due to popular demand.
A realist as well as a romantic, Bailey admits future gaps in the programme might sometimes reflect lack of funding. “Good art does cost money,” she confesses, “and we may well have to keep looking for financial supporters.” In truth though, even the bleak outlook for the arts can’t crack Bailey’s buoyancy. The Print Room has provided her with a shelter “to take risks!” she announces gleefully – indefatigable yet patient at the same time. This clearly is a great sense of satisfaction for Bailey – and we will reap the rewards with her.
Snake in the Grass runs at The Print Room in London until 12 March.