Those familiar with The Phantom of the Opera will know that Paris’ fictional Opera Populaire in which the show is set, is run by two charming if somewhat pompous gentlemen, M. Firmin and M. Andre, forever attending to and fussing over the requirements and the budgets of their productions, the quality of which, courtesy of the Opera Ghost, was often outstanding. Remove the pomposity (and of course a good few years) from these Frenchmen, shift the location to a quiet suburban London street and you start to come close to the talents of the creative managing duo of the Landor Theatre that are Robert McWhir (above right) and Andrew Keates (above left).
In recent years London’s fringe musical theatre has seen a number of venues mount very impressive productions, few more trailblazing and audacious than the Landor Theatre’s. Perched above the pub of the same name, the former Functions Room (complete with dumbwaiter from the kitchen and Guinness pipes emerging from a wall) has been transformed with two tiers of seating into a rectangular performance space that feels almost Tardis-like, such is the quality of the theatre’s output. Awards and rave reviews are commonplace to this establishment (it scooped four Off West End awards this year alone) and like the Olympian achievements of recent weeks, the theatre’s acclaim has been garnered through nothing less than the complete devotion and jaw-dropping hard work of Keates and McWhir. Between them, these two men have taken innovative scores and libretti, attracted the cream of theatre’s performing and creative talents and presented imaginative productions to hardened London audiences.
In the mid 1990s Linda Edwards, who worked at the Italia Conti stage school next door, was invited by the forward-thinking landlord of the Landor pub to start a theatre upstairs. Robert McWhir first came to the theatre in 1997 with the production City of Angels, and almost immediately felt a connection with the place. After discussions with Linda, he was invited to manage the theatre, and has since worked almost continuously at the Landor, performing in and developing numerous shows. His close working relationship with Keates is evident and Andrew would go as far as to say that in Rob he has found not only a best friend but also a father figure, in terms of his professional respect for McWhir. One of the reasons that Keates wanted to work at the Landor was simply to ease the burden on the McWhir, allowing the more experienced man to evolve into the rôle of the theatre’s artistic director.
At 28, Keates (who is by some years the younger of the pair), became entranced with the creative potential of the Landor while appearing in Into The Woods. The theatre’s affinity with Sondheim’s work appealed to Keates, with McWhir then mounting a groundbreaking production of Follies. Never before had this most challenging of Sondheim scores been professionally attempted by a fringe company. Sceptics said it couldn’t be done, but Josef Weinberger Ltd, the music publisher, took a supportive approach to McWhir’s plans and established West End names such as Claire Moore and Brian Kennedy joined the cast. Eschewing an orchestra for the plain musical backing of just a piano, the Landor production went on to win the resounding support of its esteemed New York composer himself.
The simple space and dimensions of the Landor create a hothouse of creativity. In a world where theatre workshops are commonplace, Keates is adamant that the Landor is a theatre workhouse. The building sports very few showbiz trimmings or trappings; there is but one backstage loo, and that is to be shared by all the cast. Front of house, economies of both space and cash demand that all involved in a show are forced to be imaginative in their work. But this workhouse works. Howard Goodall and Melvyn Bragg’s The Hired Man, had struggled in its 25 year life to find a professional stage upon which it could flourish. At the Landor the show didn’t just take root, it bloomed. Using the simplest of props, barrels and bales of straw, an impassioned cast took the audience through Bragg’s vast landscape of northern Britain at the start of the 20th century and on to the horrors of the Great War. Directed by Keates and up against stiff competition, the show scooped best musical at this year’s Off West End Awards. Such is the respect that has been earned, Howard Goodall has proposed that his new musical A Winters Tale, taken from Shakespeare, be premiered at the Landor, directed by Keates, later this year.
McWhir emphasises that while the Landor is no more than a “theatre above a pub”, he wants it to be the best such theatre. He knows the strengths and pitfalls of the place better than anyone and is a master of working productions around the constraints and features of the space. One such feature is an entry to the backstage wings that is literally a door, centre stage-back. Nothing fancy, just a door. This doorway typically becomes a scenic feature of Landor productions and even when shows tour, the “Landor door” is an integral part of the set design, as I observed during the premiere of Black Slap that they took to Edinburgh last year.
The pair are pleased with the extent to which bold musical theatre is being embraced by London’s fringe, and look warmly upon Danielle Tarento’s recent productions at Southwark Playhouse and the volume of work that emerges from the Union Theatre. Keates, however, observes with irony that in 2011, apart from London Road, he cannot recall a succesful new musical premiere in a mainstream, commercial London theatre. While the box office draw of the jukebox musical is recognised as a source of employment and wealth across the industry, both he and McWhir are sad that it has becomes increasingly challenging for new or newly-discovered musical theatre to become a financial success.
Those whom they have directed or produced hold both Andrew and Rob in high esteem. Kim Ismay, a West End actress with more years as Mamma Mia’s Tanya than it would be appropriate to mention, recently took two weeks out from that Greek idyll to perform a one-woman show at the Landor. “The intimate and surprisingly versatile space suited the piece so well,” she comments, “although bigger pieces with larger casts seem to have just as much success. Andrew and Robert simply have such passion for their theatre.” Ismay is not wrong; the pair’s passion is infectious and widely regarded. Not many pub theatres would expect The Times’ Libby Purves to even attend the press night of their show; she gave the Landor’s recently opened Curtains an impressive 4 stars.
The Landor’s is not simply a stage that is frequently hired out for other touring companies to use; the team’s talents are focussed on the productions that they mount and the theatre that they manage. As the theatre’s income is insufficient to employ anyone else, this dynamic duo do everything from directing and casting through to box office, website maintenance and programme design, right on down to cleaning and hoovering the theatre areas – including that backstage loo. Keates acknowledges that they probably do the jobs of 30 people, in a 70-80 hour working week. “When I was directing The Hired Man, I would run from rehearsal, to box office, to publicity. There is a lot of give from us here and not a great deal to take, but the rewards are huge, just not in the financial sense.”
“Venues such as the Landor make theatre as accessible and affordable as it should be, without skimping on standards or the resulting experience,” says Kim Ismay. Keates and McWhir simply do not seem to recognise the concept of skimping on standards. They aim to work with the best and produce the best.
Like the Opera Populaire, the Landor has its history, and its ghosts. McWhir recalls the death of that visionary landlord, who peacefully passed away in the flat at the top of the building, even to the extent of remembering the man’s body being taken away from the premises. Keates adds that he occasionally sleeps in the theatre (though only if a production has a sofa in the set), and that on more than one occasion he has sensed a spiritual presence in the room with him. From the quality of the shows that the Landor produces, one wonders if perhaps such a spirit is bestowing a positive aura on the theatre.
Since I spoke to Andrew and Rob, Andrew has announced that Curtains will be his last show as theatre manager with the Landor, making our conversation even more poignant. He adds: “I’ve had an incredible two years at the Landor, filled with hard-work, passion and determination. The payoff has been seeing it develop into one of London’s most successful theatres, winning countless awards and critical acclaim for productions. It’s an unstoppable little theatre and one that I have been very proud to have called home.”
For more information on the Landor Theatre, visit www.landortheatre.co.uk