'The National's Olivier theatre needs bodies and music – it’s a modern cathedral'

Michael Longhurst, Rebecca Front, Nathaniel Martello-White and more discuss the theatres that have inspired and challenged them

‘A state-of-nation stage’

Michael Longhurst
Michael Longhurst. Photograph: Dan Wooller/Rex/Shutterstock

Michael Longhurst: Since witnessing Neverland rise up from its mighty drum revolve aged 15, I’ve been in awe of the National’s Olivier theatre. With 1,150 seats fanned like a Greek amphitheatre, whose 120-degree span matches that of the human eye, an actor can take it all in from centre stage. I directed Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus there, 37 years after its feted premiere. Early on, I snuck into the NT bookshop to peak at Sir Peter Hall’s diaries. “Don’t let too much music into the play,” he mused. “It’ll overwhelm it.” Gulp, I thought, having just booked a 20-piece orchestra and six opera singers.

I can imagine lesser actors than Lucian Msamati being thrown by the riot of sound and movement gradually being shaped around him in rehearsals. But he just patiently waited. Every violin bow and fan flick came to support his exquisitely wrought tragedy. The Olivier needs bodies and music; it’s an epic space for pageantry and railing against god. A state-of-nation stage, a modern cathedral.

‘I felt lost when panto season closed’

Caroline Finn
Caroline Finn. Photograph: Ingo Hoehn

Caroline Finn: I first trod the boards in panto, aged eight, at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford. I remember the intoxicating smell of hairspray in the dressing room, soggy cheese sandwiches eaten huddled on a staircase between matinee and evening show, the awe-inspiring “big dancers”, the fine line between thrill and terror when the curtain went up. I gazed out into the darkness before losing myself in my fan kicks and smiles.

It was startling how lost and low I felt each year when panto season closed. That building and everyone in it had held me in a bubble of joy, play, generosity and experience. I found a second home and family in the theatre. Even now when I step into theatres anywhere around the world – whether as performer, creator or audience member – there is a feeling of familiarity, kinship and somewhere, backstage, the smell of hairspray.

The London Palladium .
The London Palladium. Photograph: Johnny Green/PA

‘I’ve had anxiety dreams ever since!’

Rebecca Front
Rebecca Front. Photograph: PR

Rebecca Front: The first time I ever stepped on to a stage was at the London Palladium. I was at the panto with my family. Danny La Rue was the dame and he invited children from the audience up on stage to join him in a song. It turned out when I got up there that I’d never heard the song before. I’ve been having anxiety dreams about it ever since. But what changed my life was being behind the scenes and seeing the fairies’ wings hanging on hooks. For some people it might have ruined the illusion but for me it was a revelation. If the fairies weren’t real, that meant I could be a fairy. I’ve loved theatre ever since because it opens eyes, changes minds, broadens horizons. It’s a cultural miracle.

  • Rebecca Front recently starred in The Other One for BBC1 and Avenue 5 for HBO and Sky. Read more about the London Palladium.

‘A hidden gem’

Anna Morris.
Anna Morris. Photograph: Karla Gowlett

Anna Morris: I performed my debut solo show in Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms in 2012 and fell in love with the place. It’s one of the most sought-after fringe venues for so many reasons. The location feels like you’ve discovered a hidden gem. Up a tiny side road off bustling Princes Street, up a dark staircase and into a Gatsby-style cavern of beautiful rooms with cocktails, cabaret, magic, music and comedy, both in and out of fringe season. I’ve performed four shows there including the award-winning It’s Got to be Perfect. Best of all? It is part of PBH’s Free Fringe, making fringe shows accessible to everyone. The Voodoo Rooms will always be the venue I call home.

The Egg.
The Egg, at Theatre Royal Bath. Photograph: Philip Vile

‘Respect for the audience – no matter how young’

Anisha Fields
Anisha Fields Photograph: PR

Anisha Fields: I owe a lot to the Egg in Bath. They gave me one of my first jobs after training. They opened my eyes to what respecting your audience meant – no matter how young. They made space for design to be at the forefront of the creative process. From limited resources, they created time and space to experiment, to be bold. They let me do a Christmas show without a whiff of fake snow.

It’s Egg by name, egg by nature. The auditorium is curved and spherical; red seats, red metal framework, a little beating heart set in the belly of an old stone building. Architects Haworth Tompkins consulted young people when developing the space back in 2005. And why not – young audiences make the most vocal critics. Put anything but your best work in front of them at your peril. When we developed an early-years show Squirrel there last year, we did so in the knowledge that it could be the first theatre most of the audience had ever seen. The Egg showed me just what a privilege that can be.

  • Anisha Fields is a designer whose upcoming projects include Owl at Home for Theatr Iolo. Read more about the Egg.

‘They gave me focus’

Nathaniel Martello-White
Nathaniel Martello-White Photograph: PR

Nathaniel Martello-White: The Young Vic’s David Lan was the Alex Ferguson of artistic directors. I love the Young Vic and everything it stands for: nurturing, inclusivity, the community work it does in the local borough, how it brings young people into its building and makes tickets affordable. The amazing box office and security staff, the open expansive building. The Cut itself. As a teenager, I saw the brilliant, twisted Sleeping Beauty. I could never have foreseen that this theatre would play such a pivotal role for me, giving my raw talent rigour and focus. I did my first professional play in its Maria studio, The Brothers Size, by the brilliant Tarell Alvin McCraney. I’ll reserve bragging rights as being part of the first production. My stirrings for being a writer grew. My first play, Blackta, was then directed by David Lan in the Maria.

There’s a lot of good faith in our profession that doesn’t really turn into action. The Young Vic could never be accused of that. They weren’t putting out the rhetoric of “the need for BAME talent” and doing nothing about it. They regularly produced exciting work from all walks of life and put work by black artists at the fore – not out of sympathy, not because they felt they had to, but because they were compelled to. I feel fortunate to have been part of such an amazing theatre.

  • Nathaniel Martello-White will next been seen in Sky’s I Hate Suzie and Small Axe on the BBC. Read more about the Young Vic.


Compiled by Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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