A bit of a Cock-up?

With the untimely demise of the Cock Tavern, a number of questions have been raised about the practices of their parent company. But are they all fair?

We’ve recently learned that the Cock Tavern – holder of a Peter Brook Empty Space Award and home to OperaUpClose, who produced the Olivier Award-winning La Bohème – have been forced to close down, due to a lack of licensing and serious health and safety concerns. As many who have been to the venue will no doubt agree, it was never the most comfortable of places to attend a performance, and who knows what would have happened should there be a fire? – but the quality of work was largely of a high standard, put together by an ambitious young creative team. Adam Spreadbury-Maher and his collaborators were rightly lauded for what they were attempting to do, and varying degrees of success followed – from the aforementioned Empty Space Award to the small matter of winning an Olivier, via the appointment of Spreadbury-Maher as Artistic Director of the legendary King’s Head Theatre. But now much of the goodwill generated from this spell seems to be dissipating, as a series of negative press articles and blog comments are being published.

It seems that the ambition of Spreadbury-Maher and his Good Night Out Presents… company went further than their abilities and experiences would allow them to – meaning they now stand at the top of a slippery slope. The first rumblings of discontent came almost immediately following the Olivier Awards, with stories coming out about how some cast members in La Bohème had not been paid a penny despite its successful transfer to the Soho Theatre – responses from Good Night Out Presents… clearly didn’t placate the dissenters, and soon after a column by Private Eye’s Lunchtime O’Boulez shed more light on the matter and gave an additional platform for disgruntled cast members to air their grievances (picked up on by The Stage‘s Mark Shenton). Much has been made of the sense that Spreadbury-Maher and his companies have gobbled up any profit from the show – despite the cast being on a profit-share agreement – but I’d seriously doubt it’s as black and white as it seems; considering the lack of funding behind the initial production, coupled with the outlay required for its subsequent transfer, the money may well have been swallowed up by production costs. It’s never cheap to put on a production, and it’s unknown how much of a potential loss the producers may have been looking at in the first place – but without more transparency, such malicious rumours will spread. There are undoubtedly questions over the fees Spreadbury-Maher and co. have paid themselves, but I would hope that at the very least they will open their books to Equity to prove they have not wilfully taken advantage of the goodwill of performers.

Moving on to the issue of the Cock Tavern’s closure, much of the initial press focused on the stairwell that didn’t meet health and safety standards – although a major issue in this day and age, the kind of thing I’m sure a number of fringe venues may have skirted over in years gone by in the hope that no-one would notice. With the costs associated in renovating the stairwell to meet requirements, it is unsurprising that this matter has effectively signalled the death knell of the Cock Tavern – an unfunded venue would clearly not be able to raise the funds to change this in a short space of time, and issues such as negotiating renovations and costs with the landlord could pose their own set of problems. The bigger issue to my mind, though – and one which is now seemingly being picked up by the press the second time around – is that of the lack of suitable licences at the venue.

Firstly, serious questions should be asked about why such licences weren’t in place – considering the venue opened in January 2009, how could these not have existed from day one, let alone over two years later? In response to one of my comments on a Guardian blog posted by Adam Spreadbury-Maher, Ben Cooper (Executive Producer of Good Night Out Presents…) claims that the licensing was the responsibility of the pub, and not their company; unfortunately, this doesn’t wash with me. Such a response suggests a lack of thorough planning for such a venture, and considering most venues have such a licence on display or close at hand in case of a spot check there’s a suggestion of laziness on the company’s part. Almost as concerning, though, is the fact that it took the council so long to realise there was no licence and to act – as the people responsible for looking after the licences, how did they manage to miss it?

As the closure now becomes the subject of a number of blogs, and as comments continue to flood in from those on both sides of the argument, there’s definitely a feeling that Good Night Out Presents… have engaged in some seriously poor PR. What is needed now is for the company to issue a press release and a comprehensive statement regarding the issues of the past few months – in particular one in which they hold up their hands to the mistakes they’ve made. Thus far it feels as though there is some defensive posturing on their behalf, which far from helping is antagonising the situation further; selective answering of questions on blogs only serves to draw attention to the questions not being answered, and silence might be the best option until a full statement is made. Working with a PR here would be an ideal course of action, instead of muddling through – and with the companies having recently advertised for a Press and Marketing Manager, I have some sympathy for the job which awaits the successful candidate.

Regardless of the issues raised, there can be no doubt that the artistic successes of the Cock Tavern, Good Night Out Presents… and Adam Spreadbury-Maher are well-merited; their collective efforts and achievements have allowed them to reach the lofty heights they now occupy, but have also ensured their heads are well-and-truly above the parapets for people to take shots at. The ambition they have shown should be lauded, but the naivety shown in the past few months can easily be perceived as arrogance – and if such a perception sticks, then it could damage the collective reputations of those involved. At present, the company still run the King’s Head Theatre, as well as OperaUpClose and Good Night Out Presents…; instead of trying to find a replacement venue for the Cock Tavern – which would no doubt present similar problems to the original venue – I’d suggest their energies would be best served on focusing on the existing companies. In time, it may turn out that running a venue is not something the team excel at – but whilst the quality of work they produce continues, and if lessons are learned from this experience, then the team will have much to feel proud of.

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2 Responses to “A bit of a Cock-up?”

  1. livethedream Says:

    Good Night Out Presents, Opera Up Close and The Kings Head are all companies that profit from their productions. Profits that are generally not shared, and if shared not shared in compliance with the ratios suggested by Equity i.e. 60/40 to the cast and stage management. There’s been a lot of ‘wet’ talk about people agreeing to do these productions for nothing. That is not true. Most of these productions are advertised as profit share not amateur presentations. Good people have performed ,stage managed and designed for these shows. The only people credited for the excellence of the shows seem to be the self publicising, self aggrandizing Misters Spreadbury Maher and Cooper. To paraphrase you I wholeheartedly agree that their ambition blindly leaps further than their abilities and experiences allow them.

    Apparently, people who quite understandably feel that they have been exploited by these companies should try this:-

    More information can be obtained from Equity http://www.equity.org.uk/home/ or http://actorsminimumwage.wordpress.com/
    Performers, do press your case via they union, even if you accepted a job on no pay, you can claim retrospectively as one landmark case proved in 2009 and won £2000+.
    http://www.bectu.org.uk/news/548

  2. […] previously discussed on this blog the case of The Cock Tavern, and the apparent unfair distribution of funds from La Bohème; the biggest problem they […]

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