A critical history of the Soho Theatre: 1968-1975

Morrison, M. 2014. A critical history of the Soho Theatre: 1968-1975. PhD thesis University of Westminster Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities

TitleA critical history of the Soho Theatre: 1968-1975
TypePhD thesis
AuthorsMorrison, M.

This thesis represents the first detailed account of the Soho Theatre’s early history, from 1968 to 1975. During this period, ‘Soho’ was a pioneer of lunchtime theatre, offering a challenge to conventional theatre-going practice and placing new demands on writers, director and designers. Soho quickly established a dominant position on the burgeoning fringe and alternative theatre scene. It did so, however, in spite of critical misgivings about the value of the lunchtime ‘movement’. Commentators often failed to appreciate the innovative qualities of lunchtime work, finding fault with what they saw as a random approach to programming and an apparent lack of clear artistic policy. Many later theatre histories have reproduced this critique. As well as documenting the Soho Theatre’s history, therefore, this study offers a reassessment of the contribution it, and other lunchtime companies, made to the theatrical activity of the time.

In my first chapter, I trace the development of the lunchtime theatre phenomenon, situating it within a number of theatrical, political and cultural contexts. I consider its complex relationship with the Arts Council and engage with some of the more dismissive accounts of its practices, revealing the ideological positions on which such assessments rest. In Chapter Two, I examine the company’s first ‘home’, at Le Metro Club on New Compton Street, and show how it quickly became an integral part of the developing theatrical landscape. In Chapter Three, I concentrate on Soho’s time at the King’s Head pub in Islington. Here it mounted a series of productions that challenged traditional notions of the ‘one-act’ play and tested the boundaries of the performance space. In 1972, the Soho Theatre moved again, to a basement on Riding House Street owned by the Polytechnic of Central London. Chapters Four and Five examine the company’s first years at what became known as the Soho Poly. I pay particular attention to the importance of the venue itself, showing how it played a crucial role in Soho’s survival. I conclude by arguing that existing studies of fringe and alternative theatre have underestimated the values of ‘eclecticism’, ‘contingency’ and ‘responsiveness’ that often characterised the Soho Theatre and other companies on the lunchtime scene.

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