In the story of the Soho Theatre, there is one very influential, creative and imaginative unsung hero figure (alas no longer with us). But if it was not for his outstandingly singular vision and his ability to make impossible things happen then the Soho Poly and so much of the ensuing history simply would not have been.
John Hallé was his name – below average height with dark tousled hair and no sign of a french accent (I think he must have nabbed the surname with the accent just for the effect). John was a born Londoner and on top of that was a life-long fan of all the comics; Eric and Ernie, Arthur Askey, Tommy Cooper, Dud and Pete. He delighted us with his constant gags and impersonations all through the night if necessary. A typical example was the fit up and set construction of Chekhov’s On the Road. The rough, Russian country tavern that filled the basement theatre – ceiling, floor and walls were all constructed by hand from old, crude wooden palettes.
He was a graduate of the Central School of Art and Design, and I think must have been singled out as one of the most promising students they had had there. For, when it came to a final piece of work and two working professional theatre personages were appointed to set the brief for a theoretical show he was to fully design as a final student exercise, even John was surprised to find that this brief came in the persons of Lord and Lady Olivier.
The fringe was certainly very lively at the time we met John. He had just designed a set for Paul Raymond, who, coincidentally, was to become my landlord a little later, purchasing outright and then developing the four flats next to the former Windmill Theatre in the West End (which included ours). John’s set for Raymond involved the construction of a glass-sided swimming pool so that the bikini-clad women could be seen under water – on stage! He always loved a challenge our John!
On the more serious ‘fringe’ theatre side I think after he came to see some early productions of mine: notably The Local Stigmatic, The Tower, perhaps, and an Arrabal double bill involving a necrophiliac chasing a couple of monks carrying an ‘occupied’ coffin. He was not the least bothered by the lack of funds when it came to the things he helped us with.
The Arts Council had been trying to persuade The Soho Theatre to do some Fringe Touring. For the public image, I guess. When I said that I was interested in a small-scale tour of the 3,500 year old Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh he pricked up his ears. He agreed to design it. That was the start of a relationship that led, a couple of years down the line, to his discovery and scheme for a permanent home for the company. That one rather scruffy basement that was about to become the most famous of London’s tiny fringe theatres in the 70ss and 80s – The Soho Poly.
John had been working as a tutor with Design Students on the Polytechnic of Central London Theatre Design course and happened across the place. Small as it was, he saw that it could work well and secured a rent-free deal for us (as long as we incorporated the Poly into the name) then promptly set out to formulate a practical and inexpensive house design style, and convince the authorities that to work on this was the perfect theatre design student experience.
He formulated a back stage area for lighting and sound control which doubled as a necessary food preparation area for our lunch-time theatre goers. He covered the walls with dark brown cork tiles (less depressing than black drapes, he always insisted) and secured a mass of old Polytechnic furniture: chiefly these were stacking chairs and very large wooden tables. He shortened the legs of the tables so that they could become low rostra to help sight lines, and painted the tables and the chairs brilliant glossy red. A dark brown curtain on a rail enabled the auditorium to be separated from the foyer area and then, the most challenging job of all (tackled with John’s roguish and sometimes surreal sense of humour) the Herculean task of stripping the grease and filth from the hydraulic lift shaft that was to become the permanent underground, unisex dressing room.
A dressing room that would be used by Nigel Hawthorne, Simon Callow, David Warner, John Hurt, Richard O’Brien, Dudley Sutton, Prunella Scales, Julia Foster, Eleanor Bron and so many many more.
I did a couple of shows in larger spaces with John. One in the Greenwich Theatre and one in Ludlow Castle for proper fees with proper budgets but I think, when it came down to it we both preferred the Poly.
Thank you John you were an inspiration!