Whether to see an uproarious pantomime or an adaptation of Jane Eyre, a trip to the Rosemary Branch has always been a byword for a good night out.
But this month the Rosie’s founders and artistic directors, Cecilia Darker and Cleo Sylvestre, have decided to call it a day after 20 years at the helm of the theatre pub.
“Someone called us an institution the other day, I quite liked that,” muses Cecilia Darker, who at 67 is looking forward to spending more time on the tennis court.
“When you run a theatre it’s so all-consuming, often 12 hour days and with certainly no distinction between week days and weekends.”
“I’ve always felt in all my careers that there comes a time that you start to plateau, and as soon as you start to plateau then it’s time to move on. And I’m just about to get to that plateau when I know that it’s time to move on.”
It was 1993 when Cecilia Darker decided to take a chance and blow her inheritance on a dilapidated pub on Shepperton Road.
The building was once a Victorian music hall, and after the squatters moved out, Darker and her business partners set about restoring the pub to its former glory.
She soon gave up her job at the Central School of Ballet and convinced her friend and neighbour Cleo Sylvestre to come on board and help run the theatre.
Sylvestre, for her part, had had a long career in theatre and screen. She had made a record with the Rolling Stones aged 17, appeared opposite Alec Guinness on the West End, and was the first black actress in a British soap, taking roles in Coronation Street and Crossroads.
“It was a veritable baptism of fire,” Darker recalls. “Together we learnt how to run a small theatre, making lots of mistakes along the way.”
Neither Darker nor Sylvestre thought they would still be at it 20 years later, but having helped launch the careers of actors, writers, directors and designers and picked up several awards along the way, the pair have decided to take pass the baton on to the next generation.
“It’s difficult to single things out in 20 years,” Darker says, when asked to name some of the highlights of her time at the Rosie.
“I was speaking to a theatre critic a couple of months ago, and he was saying ‘tell me about the Rosie and what things have hit the West End after they’ve gone to you.
“I was gobsmacked and I said it’s nothing to do with the West End what we do, it’s giving young people a chance to do something else.
“It’s a marvellous stepping stone from drama school to the next part of your career and Cleo and I are both incredibly proud of having supported so many people who have done that – those are the pleasures rather than the individual productions.”
To mark the 20-year anniversary, Sylvestre revived her one-woman show, The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole, and 20 play readings of mostly new work have been presented throughout the year, with the Rosie’s patron Fay Weldon rumoured to be writing the final one.
Is this the end of theatre at the Rosemary Branch? I am assured not. Darker still owns part of the pub, and hopes she and Cleo can help out the new resident theatre company waiting in the wings.
An experimental performance company called Unattended Items, headed up by theatre-makers Genevieve Taricco and Scarlett Plouviez Comnas will be attempting to fill their shoes.
The new directors will curate a programme of new work for an initial period of two years from this month.
Working alongside artists from a variety of disciplines, the company will seek out innovative ways of engaging audiences.
Comnas used to intern at the Rosie, so whilst the programming will certainly change, the stage is set for a smooth transition.
2 Shepperton Road, N1 3DT