After a long boozy Sunday lunch, Adam Nichols and Simon Nicholas rashly decide to set up a new theatre company. Flicking through a Latin dictionary they alight on ‘ab ovo’ meaning ‘from the beginning’, which seems an appropriate way of describing the artistic vision they have in mind.
Our first production, a gangland Romeo and Juliet, plays to sellout audiences at the new Trestle Arts Base venue in St Albans, which becomes our home for the next four years. David Berryma is particularly scary and sinister. Later in the year we present an ambitious collection of Pinter plays under the title The New World Order, which is perfectly timed to coincide with the controversy of the Iraq war. Simon gets to indulge his filmmaking aspirations in a stunning multimedia production and Imogen de la Bere makes her directorial debut.
A second Shakespeare production, As You Like It, set in the summer of love complete with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band playing live and a bright orange VW Beetle. Getting the car into the theatre involves no little huffing, puffing and swearing but it certainly steals the show. Then we’re off to the Edinburgh Fringe with a revival of The New World Order which plays to packed houses and rave reviews. The year ends with our first musical, Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. This commitment to live music soon becomes a hallmark of our work.
We take on Shakespeare’s best known and most challenging work, Macbeth. The post-apocalyptic setting means that we all spend several weeks collecting hub caps from the side of the local highways and byways to form a rather unconventional Birnam Wood. And schoolgirls faint as Alan vomits almost too realistically on stage. Next it’s The Cherry Orchard, our first classic, which allows us to tour for the first time, taking in such exotic locations as Hitchin. We are due to end the year with Closer by Patrick Marber but a minor crisis ensues as Kathryn Rogers is badly injured in a car crash, resulting in the cancellation of the run. Fortunately she recovers and is well enough to take part in the rearranged performances the following Spring.
A Shakespeare double header with a Renaissance Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a children’s nursery. The latter production transfers to the Waterside Theatre in Stratford upon Avon in the first of two summer residencies in the great man’s birthplace. One performance takes place half an hour after a screening in the theatre of Portugal knocking England out of the World Cup, in 38 degree heat. The make up doesn’t stay on our faces for very long.
The year begins with a multimedia production of A Clockwork Orange, complete with topical hoodies and an interesting scouse accent from Faith. Another Shakespeare duo follows with a beautiful Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night set on a 1920s cruise ship with flappers and actual dancing. OVO’s house band, Food of Love, is born with Will Franklin multitasking on the accordion and trumpet, Howard Salinger achieves a lifelong ambition by dressing up as Little Bo Peep and Paul de Burton reveals a little more than was strictly necessary in an Edwardian bathing suit. That show goes up to Stratford causing much amusement as we dance the Charleston in the city’s streets. The year ends with the silliness of The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Dan Warren and Ed White learn the ukulele with varying degrees of success.
Our first foray onto the London fringe with successful revivals of The Importance of Being Earnest and Twelfth Night at the Bridewell Theatre, for which Michael Jackson kindly agrees to grant the rights to the entire back catalogue of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, which he owns. More touring, with an S&M Measure for Measure titillating the denizens of Letchworth, Hemel Hempstead and Welwyn Garden City.
A co-production with Katalyst of Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice tours Hertfordshire to great acclaim and scoops an armful of awards in the process. Much Ado About Nothing, set on VE Day, evokes a spirit of postwar optimism and is presented in the beautiful surroundings of St Nicholas Church, Great Munden. Vera Lynn doesn’t quite make an appearance, but a rather strange Hitler dummy does. By this time we’ve decided we would like a home of our own and we take over the disused Paton’s bookshop on Holywell Hill in St Albans, turning the much loved local literary institution into a small but perfectly formed studio theatre. Our opening production is Harold Pinter’s Celebration/Party Time and the sellout convinces us that this impresario lark is quite good fun. The year ends with Food of Love at Christmas, Anna Franklin and Lucy Crick play the drums, and audiences are advised to walk home after our lethal mulled wine.
Our successful residency at the old bookshop continues with the first non-professional production of Shona McCarthy’s beautiful Irish play Married to the Sea, which also marks Jo Emery’s directorial debut. We present our first new play – Playing Faustus, written by Imogen. And then we’re on the move again to a new space at Pudding Lane, a former department store and dance hall with a whole extra 10 seats. It’s warmer too, and there are amazing panoramic rooftop views across the dreaming spires of St Albans. The first show there is Artist Descending a Staircase by Tom Stoppard, followed swiftly with another innovative Shakespeare – this time a Parisien left bank interpretation of All’s Well That Ends Well, in which David Widdowson actually sings. In the summer we attempt our first mini-festival with 13 consecutive nights of performance – ambitious, but successful. And then it’s a packed autumn with Katalyst presenting their hilarious version of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, a co-production of Our Country’s Good with Act Now youth theatre and a new adaptation of Three Sisters. We also manage a couple of musical shows – A Musical Journey, the debut of James Pitchford’s OVOcalists, with a particularly high note from Kieran Cummins, and another outing for Food of Love at Christmas.