It’s the same, but different.
"Welcome to our new old space," Iseult Golden of Bewley's Cafe Theatre says when she steps on to the small stage before the first lunchtime show in the revamped theatre space in the grand old cafe on Dublin's Grafton Street. There is a big cheer from the audience, many of whom may have been to the atmospheric small theatre space on the second floor of Bewley's Cafe over the years.
The theatre has been empty since February 2015 while the entire building was extensively refurbished. While the rest of Bewley’s has been open to the public for a few months, just this week the theatre raised its curtains – although it has none, for its compact corner stage – on it’s updated space.
For the past three years, the team – artistic director David Horan, producer-administrator Iseult Golden and technical front-of-house manager Colm Maher – have kept the Bewley's Cafe Theatre flag flying around the corner, in another intimate, but lesser known, theatre space in Powerscourt Centre.
For regular visitors to the full-time lunchtime space, the theatre is the same, but better. It retains its basic layout, with the stage in the corner, but a false wall has been removed, so the performance area is slightly larger. Now, after coming out of Bewley’s gracious lift or reaching the top of the stairs, instead of a door straight into the theatre space, there’s a door into a small foyer with a velvet couch.
Inside, the cornicing, original windows and two fireplaces remain, but there is a new stylish curved dark blue wall; the other walls are no longer dark green but cream, so it’s generally lighter, but just as intimate. There’s a redesigned lunch service area, a new lighting rig, and improved air conditioning. Plus, now there’s a door directly on to the stage, so performers no longer have to go through the audience area to get onstage.
The piece de resistance is a swanky system of soundproofing which is a removable wall of panels in front of the window – so the, eh, dulcet tones of buskers intruding on performances will be part of history.
The set-up is still of cafe tables and bentwood chairs – but new ones, and some of the tables have glass tops with old flyers and programmes underneath. The slight reconfiguration means the capacity is up from 50 to 65 people.
The inaugural lunchtime show to christen the space is Normal by Caitríona Daly, which was a hit at last year's Dublin Fringe, where it won the Fishamble New Writing Award. It's a powerful script with taut performances from Karen Ardiff and Caoimhe O'Malley as the conflicting mother and girlfriend of a man on the autism spectrum; the story about love and protection and living with autism and letting go is a great show to christen the new space.
Since it became a permanent lunchtime theatre venue in the late 1990s, with the support and enthusiasm of Kelly Campbell of Bewley's and artistic director Michael James Forde, it has specialised in presenting new Irish work, and has had seen a huge amount of Irish talent walk its boards (and under and behind them as writers, directors and crew) over the years.
These days, as well as Arts Council and Dublin City Council support, Bewley's is still firmly behind the theatre and there are two Campbells – Veronica and Kelly, mother and sister of Bewley's managing director Col Campbell, who has overseen the whole refurbishment – on the cafe theatre's board. Chairwoman Veronica Campbell has been especially involved in the theatre's stylish refit.
There was a celebratory vibe this week for the theatre's homecoming show, and there are plans for a big celebration on May Day, with music and performances throughout Bewley's all day, and Des Keogh's Shaw show, My Fair Ladies, in the theatre.
But the lights are up already for a new era at the small but perfectly formed theatre.
- Normal by Caitríona Daly is at Bewley's Café Lunchtime Theatre until April 28th, Mon-Sat, 1pm). bewleyscafetheatre.com