When a producer rings up attempting to book a show with a cast of eight, Jasper Blakeley politely suggests they do more research on his venue. Formerly a hairdressers, the Small Space in Barry, South Wales, is the tiniest commercial theatre in the UK, with a stage “no bigger than a parking space”. A cast of eight would be more likely to fit one on top of the other than standing in a row. “People always say: ‘God, it is small, isn’t it?” chuckles Blakeley. “The clue is in the name.”
As long as no one minds getting cosy, 25 people can pack into the downstairs theatre for a show of music, magic and comedy. At the Small Space, bodies adapt to fit the setting, Blakeley explains: “Elbows come in, people move differently.” Like a caravan or a barge, every inch is made use of. When more supplies are needed, everyone in the bar stands up so the seating can be lifted up to get to the drinks, and Blakeley reassures me that you would only bang your head on the freezer hidden above the stairs if you were 6ft 8in or above.
Buoyant and optimistic, Blakeley is one of the extraordinarily determined, almost foolishly ambitious people running the country’s smallest theatres, a group who aim to create wonders with very little room for error. He likens his theatre to the London Underground: “That shouldn’t work, yet somehow we always manage to get in. And there’s loads more room in our theatre than there is on the tube.”
In a climate of budget cuts and the cost of living crisis, keeping a theatre alive is a gargantuan task even for the smallest of spaces. When Simon Carr took over the Little Theatre, a 90-seater venue in Doncaster, in 2014 there was “about £87.40” in the bank, he remembers with a strain in his voice. One more show without a rapid rethink of the finances would bankrupt the volunteer-run space. “I didn’t sleep for three nights,” Carr groans, squeezing the bridge of his nose. “We begged people not to file their receipts until we could pay them.”
The theatre managed to stay afloat. “Financially at the moment, touch wood, we’re doing quite well,” says Alan Clark, who took over as artistic director of the Little Theatre in June. “Every show we’ve put on in the last year has made a profit, however small.” As well as ticket sales of their own productions and the running of a youth group, external hires of the theatre have been a huge success. Musical tribute acts, they’ve found, do stunningly well for both box office and bar, although “you don’t want to be alone on the bar on one of those nights,” warns Jo Chorlton, a former nurse and member of the theatre for the last five years.
Yes we have to make a living, but it’s not about that. It’s more about the space being really special
The volunteers at the Little Theatre not only act and direct but cover the bar and front of house, too. Last weekend, Clark explains proudly, the team had hosted two sold-out shows and been told that the audience reported never having had a friendlier welcome; they were gobsmacked when they found out the place was run and staffed by volunteers. “For me,” he smiles, “that’s as good a testament as: ‘Oh I saw that play there, it was brilliant.’”
“No one’s ever going to make a lot of money from it,” affirms Sara Ratcliffe, half of the husband-and-wife pair who run the near-miniature Tom Thumb theatre in Margate. “Yes we all have to make a living, but it’s not about that. It’s more about the space being really special.” An old coach house dating from 1896, the Tom Thumb has been an independent theatre for almost 40 years. People clamber over one another to reach the far side of the balcony that rings the Japanese-Alpine architecture. Pictures cram the inside, while a ballooning sculpture of a mushroom sprouts off one wall.
Tonight there are 35 people packed into the theatre downstairs and the space feels full, although Ratcliffe is pretty sure that 70 once squeezed in, all standing. Bags are on laps for lack of anywhere else to put them and a child is swept out of the way to avoid being trodden on. Bodies breathe in to make more space as the performer tiptoes their way through the audience. The actor reaches the house lights – a humble light switch at the back of the room – and blindly treads their way back to the stage.
“We’re pretty much a two-man band,” says Ratcliffe, who has run the Tom Thumb with her husband Alex for the last six years. “People are like: ‘Have you got the number to the marketing department?’ And we’re like: ‘Yeah, do you want to speak to me or Alex?’” A mix of local talent and touring performances keep the place afloat, alongside the bustling bar. “Sometimes these tours come from playing on massive stages to thousands of people, to 40 people here,” says Ratcliffe, “but every single person always says the intimacy of it, the connection to the audience, you can’t compare to that.”
Plate-spinning is a requirement to run a theatre of this size. At the Small Space, Blakeley not only runs the place but also performs; his primary life is one of a closeup magician. Not one for single-tasking, he also serves the bar on the nights he does a show. “I take off the jacket, put on the apron and make cocktails,” he says simply, as if singlehandedly entertaining and watering two dozen people is nothing. “Then I put the jacket back on and do another 45 minutes of mind reading.”
Dedication to the audience in these individual spaces seems key. On a recent summer’s day, actor Gareth J Bale drove eight and a half hours from Wales up to the Swallow, a tiny theatre tucked away in Whithorn, Dumfries and Galloway. Named after the swallows that used to nest in the barn’s roof every year, its local audience were asked to bring their own chairs when the space was first built. Today, the theatre has its own 50 seats, as well as state-of-the-art tech and a little cottage for visiting artists to stay in.
Bale went to the Swallow to perform his one-man show, Grav, about the beloved Welsh rugby player Ray Gravell. “Everything fits in the back of the car,” Bale says of the show, “including my girlfriend and the dog.” He has performed the show more than 300 times, including in a church and in Gravell’s local village hall. The show shifts to fit the space it’s in, from a giant stage where you’re pushing to be heard at the back, to somewhere like the Swallow where you are “knocking knees with the front row”. In smaller spaces like this, Bale says, the atmosphere changes. “The storytelling is different. You can look into people’s eyes. It’s probably a little bit more intimidating to be that close to people, but you can be more subtle with your performance.”
The intimacy of these spaces, the details and physical closeness the architecture enables, is something that all the tiny theatre practitioners bring up. “It’s pretty much interactive,” Blakeley says. “You literally are less than two feet away.” If someone were to throw an egg at you in a pantomime, reasons Carr, you could catch it. “The audience participation is a lot stronger than in a large theatre,” he says. This intimacy also enables a knowledge of the people behind the show. “We did a question and answer session after both performances,” says Bale of the Swallow. “It felt like they wanted to get to know you. It’s not just about ‘actor turns up, does show, leaves’.”
Financially, keeping spaces like these open will always be a knife-edge task. At the Little Theatre, the only person they can afford to employ is the cleaner. For Blakeley, it was only thanks to Arts Council grants that he was able to tide over the 580 days it was shut during the pandemic. But the commitment to the venue and the support of avid audiences keeps them alive. “We’re still here,” Blakeley says determinedly. “We keep going.”
The challenges appear to pale in comparison with what they gain from these spaces. For Clark, being involved with the Little Theatre has offered him a new kind of freedom. “Suddenly I found I could go on stage, leave all my baggage behind and be free. My mental health is a billion times better than the day before I started doing this.” Having spent his career in the civil service, his instinct has always been about logic and structure. “Now,” he says happily, “I can express that artistic part of me that’s never really got out.”