Neil McPherson - ‘One of the most unsung of all major artistic directors in Britain’


23 April 2018
Attracting comments such as ‘compelling and stylish’, ‘powerful’, ‘thought-provoking’ and ‘deeply moving’, The Finborough Theatre’s two latest productions look set to further its reputation as one of London’s leading fringe theatres. At its helm for almost twenty years is Old Citizen, Neil McPherson, described as ‘possibly one of the most unsung of all major artistic directors in Britain’.

Neil was already attending a stage school at weekends when he joined City of London School where his love of the theatre was encouraged and he was given the opportunity to expand his acting and writing skills.

'The nice thing about City is that it is quite accepting. If you wanted to play cricket, you played cricket and if you were the guy who wanted to do theatre, you did theatre. It was quite freeing in that way.

‘And there was a lot of drama at City. It had its own theatre and put on a school play every year. I acted in everything they would have me in - all the school plays and a couple of plays of my own that we produced. I was even allowed time off to act in ‘A Better Class of Person’, John Osborne’s TV autobiography. I remember one school report where the Head of English said, “I’m impressed that despite spectacular engagement elsewhere, he’s still very anxious to be in the school play.” After I left City they allowed me to do a couple of plays in the theatre in the new school with current pupils which was very generous. I’m still in touch with Mr Coulson who sends me his plays.’

Neil joined The National Youth Theatre when he left CLS and went on to achieve a BA in Acting from the Central School of Speech and Drama. Having acted as a child, he already had about ten years of acting experience behind him by the time he left university and decided to shift his focus to producing plays.

‘I was in the West Yorkshire Playhouse dressed as a polar bear in front of five hundred screaming children and thought, actually, I don’t want to do this.’

Alumni connection

A few years later he was given the opportunity to take his first step towards becoming an artistic director by a fellow Old Citizen.

‘John Harris was leaving his role as Artistic Director at The New End Theatre, Hampstead. He knew me from CLS obviously and also having cast me as an actor in one of his plays and offered me the job. The building was to be sold, so it was a stop-gap appointment. My job was to find someone who would buy it and keep it as a theatre, which I did during my nine-month tenure. The new guys kept it going for ten years but sadly, after that, it was sold. It is now a synagogue.’

Two years after leaving The New End Theatre, Neil was appointed Artistic Director of The Finborough Theatre (pictured below). Located above the 19th century Finborough Arms in West Brompton, this 50-seater theatre is renowned for putting on plays by new writers, many of which transfer to the West End and off-Broadway and an acclaimed series of rediscovered plays.  

‘We specialise in plays from brand new writers just starting out from the UK, America, Canada, Australia, and fairly weird, obscure plays that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Basically, I choose plays I’m passionate about and hope that other people will like them too. As well as producing and running a theatre, I mentor and encourage new writers. James Graham is probably the most well-known playwright the Finborough has mentored. He’s just won an Olivier Award for ‘Labour of Love’. [I liked his writing because]… he could write a stonking one-liner, which is actually very difficult, and his subject matter was very interesting. A lot of people who’ve just left university write about a 20-, 30-something, middle-class, urban professional in a flat moaning about their girlfriend leaving them. James and Mike Bartlett and Laura Wade wrote something different. It’s intangible. You know in a couple of pages if you have a writer or not.’

One of The Finborough’s forthcoming plays is ‘Gracie’ by Canadian writer Joan MacLeod, winner of the prestigious Governor General’s Award. The play tells the story of a teenage girl growing up in a polygamous religious cult. Its Creative Producer is another Old Citizen, Alex Brown. Commenting on his choice of ‘Gracie’, Neil says, ‘We do a lot of Canadian plays as other theatres never think to check out what is coming out of Canada – which is their loss and our gain. It has an important story to tell and is beautifully written.’

The Finborough also stages rediscovered plays that have not been on in London for the last twenty-five years. ‘Choosing which existing plays to produce involves ‘reading, reading, reading,’ says Neil. ‘One of my favourite tributes was, “If a play hasn’t been put on for seventy years, there’s usually a good reason, except when it’s on at the Finborough.”  You need to read about a hundred plays before you find one that is suitable and still has something to say. We try to put on something different - it needs to be to attract someone to a 50-seater theatre in Earls Court!’

The Finborough tries not to be London-centric, including plays in the Welsh, Irish, Cornish and Scottish Gaelic languages among its repertoire. ‘We also try to provide a space where people from outside London can come and feel at home.’

During 2018, the Finborough Theatre is also running its FINBOROUGH150 series, a selection of the best plays from 1868, to celebrate 150 years of the Finborough Theatre building.

Winner of the UK Studio Theatre Awards Best Venue 2015, The Finborough has won numerous awards and nominations for its productions. These include an Olivier Award 2017 nomination for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre, for Neil’s play, ‘It is Easy to be Dead’ and Best Play of the Year in the UK Studio Theatre Awards 2016 for his play ‘I Wish to Die Singing’.

More rewarding for Neil, however, is the audience’s reaction to one of The Finborough’s plays: ‘Awards are very nice but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about people coming out of a play and arguing about it, being moved or changed by it.

Funding Challenge

Yet, despite its success, the theatre is battling to survive. Its only challenge, says Neil, is funding. ‘We rely purely on what we make at the box office and rentals, which we curate very carefully. It is getting to the point where, unless we get a massive influx of funding, we will close. The trouble with London theatres is that in the last five years there’s been an explosion of venues and all of them have a lot more seats than us. So, although we’ve got the reputation, if you’re a producer and you have the choice of a venue seating 150 and one seating 50, you’re going to go to the big one. In the short term we’re doing a massive fund-raising drive. We need about £75,000 a year to keep it going and we’re looking to move to somewhere bigger. Somewhere in central London that could be converted into a 150-seater theatre. That makes it possible to break even. A lot of the plays we do, particularly the older plays, have very large costs and to pay all those people is very difficult.’

Asked if he has any ambitions to move to more mainstream theatre, Neil says, ‘I’m actually quite happy where I am because here, I can do the plays I’m passionate about, and I can mentor new writers who go on to the West End. When a theatre starts being successful, a lot of people ask, when are you moving? I have a bit of an issue with usually male, nearly always Oxbridge types who would [do anything] to run The National and it’s all about a career path, not the work. For me, it’s about having a bigger venue so we can carry on doing what we’re doing without killing ourselves [by working all hours and never taking a holiday]. We have something on every night of the year except Christmas and that’s with one full-time member of staff and two part-time staff members.’

Attracting talent front and back stage is another key part of Neil’s role as Artistic Director. ‘Our casting mantra is aim high, cast late and keep your nerve,’ he says. ‘The most amazing people will do things if you just ask them. Most of the people coming through our doors are young and starting out but we also see people like Michael Craig, a 1950s film star, who was nominated for an Oscar. Most of the people back stage are younger. We’re the sort of place where you start out. You do a couple of plays at The Finborough and then you go on [to run your own theatre company]. Tamara Harvey is now running Theatr Clwyd, Kate Wasserberg is Artistic Director of Out of Joint, Rob Hastie now runs Sheffield Theatres and in a few years you’ll find them at The Royal Court, The Donmar, The National. Nearly everyone in theatre has been at The Finborough at one point or another.’

Internship Scheme

The Finborough runs an internship scheme for over-18s and welcomes unsolicited manuscripts from budding playwrights.  Interns do ‘work themselves into the ground,’ says Neil. ‘But those people who do it and put their all into it, will advance their career by about two years. Thelma Holt, a very famous West End producer, once gave a bursary of £25,000 to one of our ex-interns at least seven years before he should have got it and she was overheard to say, “Well I know that, I know that. But if he’s done three months at The Finborough, that’s worth seven years.” It’s hard graft and you get your hands dirty but it’s not always what you learn, it’s who you talk to and meet during your internship that’s really useful.’

Neil advises school leavers thinking of entering the world of acting or theatre production to do three years at a good drama school, not a one or two-year postgraduate course. ‘We don’t even usually audition postgraduates,’ he says. ‘We are looking for people who have done three years at Guildhall, three years at RADA, three years at Central. If you can afford it and want to act, do three years at university and then three years at drama school. If you want to be an actor and work until you’re eighty, in Europe or Russia it takes eight years to train so one year will not cut it. There are no shortcuts, unless you are very good-looking, in which case you’ll get TV or film while your looks last. If you want to direct, go to a good university, it doesn’t really matter what course you do, and spend all of your time doing theatre. The more mistakes you can make doing that at university, the better.’

If you’d like to support The Finborough Theatre in its fundraising efforts, please join its Friends Scheme or contact Neil McPherson directly.

Picture credits: Neil McPherson (top) courtesy of Mr Carl Woodward, Finborough Theatre (middle) by Douglas Mackie, still from 'White Guy on a Bus' by Helen Maybanks.