(Kate Wyver’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/9/23; Photo: The Guardian.)

From the magician who stops his show to serve at the bar to the actor who drives entire plays around in his car, for these theatre-lovers small really is beautiful

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.

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.

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