New Diorama: the most important theatre in London you’ve never heard of

 (Photo by Rebecca Need-Menea)
(Photo by Rebecca Need-Menea)

This month, two critically acclaimed British shows make their much-anticipated debut in the West End. What do Operation Mincemeat and For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy have in common? They were both developed by an 80-seat playhouse near Regent’s Park run by a team of just eight.

“I don’t think there are many organisations in the country like us,” says David Byrne, the artistic director and chief executive of New Diorama. “I don’t think a studio theatre has ever really got to the place we’re at.”

In its 10-year run, NDT has built a reputation as one of the most influential studio theatres in the UK; it has won over a dozen awards for its dynamic programming and artist support; it develops theatremakers over many years so they are ready to take the next step – onto the biggest stages in the country. It is now also building a reputation for backing West End hits of tomorrow.

Part of its success is down to its radical decision making, such as shutting for six months – with today marking its official reopening. It was a bold move, one year after the pandemic, when creative institutions – big and small – were scrabbling to get work on the stage. But this shutdown, or, as New Diorama Theatre called it, Intervention 01, was an absolute necessity.

“Everybody was exhausted. A lot of people were on the brink of burnout,” says Byrne. “This was an active creative decision to say, we’re going to stop and we’re going to have a rethink.” The team released a statement outlining its plans, explained the decision on BBC Radio 4, and went dark on social media.

Now New Diorama is back and more galvanized than ever, launching with a roster of exciting new work. This includes, as Byrne calls it, the “meaty, ambitious show” After the Act, a musical by Breach Theatre – a company with which it has worked for years – about the repeal of the anti-gay Eighties law Section 28, which re-opens the theatre tonight, and little scratch, a play about a woman’s trauma, which has been adapted from Rebecca Watson’s acclaimed book by heavyweight theatre director Katie Mitchell.

“This whole season is a statement of intent about where we are both as a theatre, but also what we want to be doing going forward. I think it’s our most overtly political season,” says Byrne. “Sexual identity politics and the law are some of the big central debates that we’re currently grappling with as a city. And it felt like [After the Act] was the perfect piece to look at relaunching this new era with.”

Operation Mincemeat will open at the Fortune Theatre on March 29 (Avalon/SpitLip)
Operation Mincemeat will open at the Fortune Theatre on March 29 (Avalon/SpitLip)

It’s also the theatre’s strongest season at the box office: pre-sales are greater than all of the pre-sales for all their post-pandemic seasons combined. And this is just the beginning: during the shutdown, the team had almost 500 different conversations with artists, and many of the projects they are backing are now in the works, but are going to take years to come to fruition.

Those projects can look in hope at the two NDT-backed shows hitting the West End this month. Although Byrne and his team have a broad definition of success, the transfers of Operation Mincemeat and For Black Boys... are without a doubt one of independent theatre’s biggest triumphs.

For Black Boys..., which transferred from New Diorama to the Royal Court, was one of the first shows made at NDT Broadgate. (NDT Broadgate was another of the theatre’s radical ideas – a giant, free to use, rehearsal and workspace complex which supported eight and a half thousand artists from August 2021 to July 2022).

Written by Ryan Calais Cameron, For Black Boys... has now been nominated for two Oliviers and was recognised in eight separate categories at the Black British Theatre Awards. Its entire cast of six won The Stage’s Debut Best Performer award in 2022, the first time the prize has been awarded to a group.

Similarly, Operation Mincemeat, which was originally commissioned by NDT, has gone from strength to strength, selling out runs at Southwark Playhouse and Riverside Studio, and now opening for eight weeks at the Fortune Theatre.

“It feels like we’re only just getting started,” says Byrne. NDT is outside of the Arts Council’s national portfolio, but has resources and investment, meaning that in many instances they have more flexibility than other institutions to carve out their own agenda. “We’re uniquely positioned sometimes to say and do things that other theatres can’t,” says Byrne.

Byrne, who has been with NDT from the very beginning, is not only an award-winning playwright and director himself, but helms several important theatre initiatives including curating the 2023 Brits Off Broadway Festival, which helps UK productions make their New York debuts, and the Untapped Award (alongside entertainment company Underbelly), which gives £10,000 and “a whole slate of support” to three companies that are going to Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this year.

little scratch will open at New Diorama Theatre on April 12 (Robert Day)
little scratch will open at New Diorama Theatre on April 12 (Robert Day)

Next up, Byrne foresees a lot of situations that are “really precise to the time that we’re currently in”, in which artists are going to need targeted help. He gives the example of the students who graduated over Covid who are now severely lacking “the early rungs of the ladder”.

Byrne and his team want to make sure they can get the right support from theatres so that they can have a “proper sustainable career in the arts”. He adds, “We risk losing a whole generation of artists in the sort of aftershocks of what we’ve all been through.”.

NDT supports projects at different stages, funding student work across the country (including through partnerships with the National Student Drama Festival), working with emerging artists and companies it has never worked with before, as well as companies it has a long standing association with. “What joins all of our companies together is a zeal and an ambition to make the best possible work in the context they’re making it,” says Byrne.

The theatre also keeps its ticket prices around the £20 mark and offers £3 tickets for previews to people who are unemployed or are striking. “There are so many people who are unemployed or really struggling, and we thought those people really need a good night out,” explains Byrne.

He’s a big proponent of the civic role of theatre, believing that theatres need to be accessible, in part because they serve their local communities and are among the few places where people from a wide range of backgrounds are still brought together under one roof.

Every run, NDT’s shows have a provision for doing captioned performances, and the theatre offers a matinee performance for isolated people in their community as well as a “babes in arms” matinee. “Obviously, babies are the harshest of audiences,” says Byrne.

NDT plans to take more ‘interventions’ in the future: not total shutdowns, but they will be every several years and they will be used as opportunities to reset. They plan to support artists working across London, not just artists currently working at New Diorama Theatre.

They also have ambitions to scale up, but without a clear idea yet of what that would look like, “We’re creating a real environment here, which feels different to a lot of our counterparts in the theatre industry,” says Byrne. “The idea of building that world out, is incredibly appetising, and fills me with so many possibilities.

“Part of me is curious to see how far we can push it and where we can go next. And some of the ideas we’ve been talking about here over the last few months are so ambitious, and so different from ideas I’m hearing anywhere else, that I’m incredibly energised and motivated to think of what could come next.”

After the Act opens tonight and runs at New Diorama to April 1; For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy opens at the Apollo Theatre on March 25, buy tickets here; Operation Mincemeat opens at the Fortune Theatre on March 29,