08 March 2022

From 1972 to 1990, the Soho Poly, located in the University of Westminster’s Little Titchfield Street/Riding House Street building, pioneered lunchtime theatre, which provided new opportunities for women in the arts, many of whom were constrained by childcare responsibilities and other domestic expectations of the time. But with the advent of lunchtime theatres like the Soho Poly, it was possible for actors, directors and audiences to become involved in theatre in the middle of the day. This offered a crucial new platform for underrepresented practitioners, particularly women.

The theatre hosted an exceptional company of playwrights and actors. Shirley Barrie, a Canadian Director, was one of the female theatre extraordinaires who remembered directing lunchtime plays at the venue with her new baby in tow. This freedom enabled women to work more easily in the theatre and have their voices heard. 

Renowned playwright Caryl Churchill was also among the exceptional company of playwrights whose work appeared at the Soho Poly. Churchill is best known for dramatising abuses of power, her unique use of non-naturalistic techniques and for her exploration of sexual politics and feminist themes within her work. Her play ‘Three More Sleepless Nights’ was staged at the venue in 1980.

Under the leadership of the inspirational novelist and theatre director Verity Bargate (Artistic Director, 1975 and 1981), many other women playwrights also saw their work premiered at the Soho Poly. Gilly Fraser’s ‘A Bit of Rough’, which addressed domestic abuse, was just one of the plays which spoke directly to contemporary issues.

The Soho Poly venue still exists on Riding House Street, and the University of Westminster is currently raising funds to reopen it as a brand-new, community-focused space, remaining committed to accessibility and inclusion.

Talking about the pioneering women in theatre that passed through the Soho Poly’s doors, Dr Matthew Morrison, Senior Lecturer who is leading on the Soho Poly restoration project, said: “The 1970s was a hugely important period for plays by and about women. Lunchtime theatres like the Soho Poly played a small but critical part in providing opportunities for such important new work.

Jordan Scammell, Head of Development and Fundraising at the University of Westminster, added: “A huge part of the ethos of the Soho Poly was to give voice to underrepresented groups and we’re proud of the women who made their voices heard and talent seen at the start of their careers in our very special space. I’m delighted that very soon we will once again be able to open the Soho Poly’s doors and help to support the next generation to follow in the footsteps of Caryl Churchill, Shirley Barrie, Gilly Fraser, and many others.”

Find out more about the history of the Soho Poly

To discuss the restoration project or make a donation, please email [email protected]