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Copyright National Maritime Museum, London

Arts on a tea clipper: the Michael Edwards Studio Theatre

29 January 2014 Charlie Kenber

“For it to be so full with extraordinary talents and to have sold out is testament to maybe we’ve got something special here.” Richard Doughty

This week sees the opening of one of London’s more unusual new theatres. Accommodating up to 85 or 100 people – depending on configuration – and situated slap bang in the middle of the Cutty Sark’s lower deck, the new Michael Edwards Studio Theatre is a truly unique offering.

Launching with an almost entirely sold out fortnight of shows featuring the likes of Alan Davies, Ross Noble and Karine Polwart, the venue will host comedy, music and small-scale theatre. Built in 1869 for a very different purpose, the famous tea clipper has been in Greenwich since 1954 but only reopened in 2012 after extensive restoration work. Visitors can now walk beneath the ship’s hull, as well as exploring its three decks.

The theatre’s early offerings also include productions from Trinity Laban and nearby secondary schools – reflecting the intentional balance being struck between acting as a London-wide venue, and interacting with the local community. Michael Edwards, namesake of the theatre and Trustee of the Cutty Sark, tells us “the ship has belonged to Greenwich since 1954, so Greenwich and the Cutty Sark are one. It would be totally wrong to do something like this where these schools can appear and we don’t let them.”

Richard Doughty, Directory of the ship continues, “we want to establish the Cutty Sark as an arts venue, but of course this type of programming is going to appeal more to local people, because of the travelling. If we’re putting on a show that doesn’t finish until 10 o’clock and then you want to have a drink afterwards, you’re not going to be travelling a long way.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the theatre has been part of plans for the Cutty Sark for a long time. Michael, who became a Trustee in 2008 in the middle of the restoration says, “there was a rudimentary idea at the time when I joined that there should be some sort of performance space in the lower hold. It evolved from that.” For Richard, it’s important that the theatre stands in its own right, but also doesn’t restrict the ship’s normal functions. “The design of the theatre is very much part of the conservation project,” he tells us, “but we wanted to walk before we could run so the priority was to get the ship open as a visitor attraction first.”

Indeed, the space is so flexible that it can be moved between theatre and museum space with minimal effort. “You wouldn’t for one moment dream that in here there can be a studio theatre, and that’s very important,” Michael agrees.

With a varied programme, the theatre is also intended to attract a wide audience. Michael says, “it’s not just a comedy store place, it’s not just for music and sea shanties.” Richard adds, “Now it’s about developing the programme. We’ve been talking to Trinity about the potential of using it for jazz. Good quality folk music at the top end will work here. Stand up is obviously going to work here. We’re also talking to several different theatre companies currently.”

Clearly then, the best is yet to come from this newly born theatre. “I think it’s very exciting to be able to put on a show that might be at the O2, or a bigger venue, in such a small intimate space,” Richard concludes. “We’re going to be knuckling down and getting into the programming hot on the heels of this initial launch.”

Further information about the Michael Edwards Studio Theatre is available here.

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