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Indhu Rubasingham: The director who made me laugh again

Director Indhu Rubasingham at the Kiln theatre in October 2019 - Credit: Dave Benett/Getty Images

TIM WALKER on theatre director Indhu Rubasingham, who provided him with a much-needed morale boost.

It’s hard to put a value on theatre – just as it is on music, football, art or any other endeavour that’s prone to become a religion – but a value it undoubtedly has. That was brought home to me eight years ago after an unusually bleak day at the office.

At the Daily Telegraph, we’d gone through one of our periodic management upheavals and ended up with an American internet guru. He’d called us all into a room and told us we needed to up our game. I’d been so incensed by his patronising tone I’d fired off a pearler of an email to him that I knew amounted to a professional suicide note.

All set to head home and open a bottle, I suddenly remembered I was due to review something called Handbagged at the Tricycle in Kilburn in north London. The venue was new to me and its name did little to instil confidence. I was frankly just not in the mood. It was raining torrentially, the tubes were packed and there was a fleeting moment at Victoria Station when I wondered what was the point of it all. On a scale of one ten, I’d put my morale at minus three.

Within an hour, the curtain had gone up and I was laughing like a howler monkey. Handbagged, by Moira Buffini, told the story of Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with the Queen and it could have made even a funeral procession helpless with mirth. There was a young actor in it called Neet Mohan who had an exceptional gift for comedy and the direction by Indhu Rubasingham was sparkling. I got home with my morale up at least eight points.

The next day I did something I’d never done before and wrote Mohan a fan letter. I asked him to let the whole company know how much they’d cheered me up. Ironically, I found this letter boosted their morale, too, as it arrived the same day that theatre critic Quentin Letts had wondered in the Daily Mail if there was much point to the show. Mohan – now familiar to television viewers in Casualty – he’d described as “irritating”.

The show made a swift West End transfer and was a big success, and, for a while, played at the same time as Red Velvet, another Tricycle production, wowed audiences on Broadway. Success on this scale for a small theatre in Kilburn was unprecedented, and Rubasingham, the Tricycle’s artistic director, began to fascinate me.

I took her to lunch and found a woman who was charming, kind and warm, but also with a steely determination to see that her venue continued to punch above its weight. Nothing had ever been handed to her on a plate: she’d been born in Sheffield to Tamil parents from Sri Lanka and, after a spell at Nottingham Girls’ High School, she’d gone on to study drama at Hull University. There was then an Arts Council bursary to work as an assistant director at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, where Mike Leigh was her boss. She’d then freelanced as a director and I’d caught some of her productions – notably Disconnect at the Royal Court, which I’d loved – but it was only after Handbagged that I got to appreciate the consistent flair – if not genius – in her work.

She went on to rename her theatre the Kiln – more appealing than the Tricycle which always put me in mind of something that was rickety and old-fashioned – and then presided over a two-year £7 million refurbishment which, as bad luck would have it, was completed not long before the coronavirus forced her to shut down her brand new stage.

Typically, Rubashingham was adamant her theatre would remain relevant during even these dark days and launched an appeal to raise £70,000 to support the venue’s community projects, including a collaboration with the charity Food For All to provide free hot meals once a week. There’s also a project to support young people newly arrived in the UK to develop their language skills, and hopes are high for a socially-distanced theatre scheduled from March.

For all this, I know that theatre is life itself to Rubasingham and recall the passion in her eyes when she talked about her hopes and dreams for the future when we last met a year ago. I can’t even begin to imagine how hard these lockdowns have hit her, but this I know – I owe her for lifting my spirits on the blackest of nights and so much want to see her great theatre reopening soon.