A Class Act
Lavender’s Blue catch up with Lady Lucy French, Director of Development at London’s first and only 21st century theatre. Take two. The scene is coffee in the theatre’s ground floor brasserie. Walls of windows capture lively visual interaction with the streetscape, heightened by the dado level pavement. The world is a stage.
First, a little introduction. Lady Lucy French is the great granddaughter of the 1st Earl of Ypres, Commander in Chief on the Western Front in the 1st World War and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Sir John’s grandson, the 3rd and last Earl, had three daughters from his first marriage and one from his second. He died in 1988. Lucy is his youngest daughter. The 1st Earl’s elder sister was the suffragette and writer Charlotte Despard. A founding member of the Irish Women’s Franchise League and the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League to support Republican prisoners, she didn’t quite see eye to eye politically with her brother.
“One day, Charlotte was leading a suffragettes march down O’Connell Street in Dublin,” relates Lucy, “when she met a brigade led by her brother.” Awkward. “Neither of them was quite sure what to do. By rights the Lord Lieutenant should have arrested the protestors!” Instead, they each moved to the side and continued marching in opposite directions.” Literally and metaphorically.
French Park in Roscommon was the Italian inspired French family’s Irish seat designed by the German born architect Richard Castle. Like Russborough, French Park was Castle’s 18th century take on Palladio with curvy colonnades attaching wings to a colossal main house. Drama set in stone. It was the seat of the Barons de Freyne before it was demolished in the 20th century. Charlotte Despard spent a lot of time at French Park where she was born. The current Lord de Freyne, Lucy’s cousin Charles, lives in Putney. “Hampstead and St John’s Wood are my neck of the woods. A few years back I visited Roscommon,” recalls Lucy, “but couldn’t find the house. Some of the locals pointed it out. It’s a pile of rubble now.”
Back to St James Theatre. “I got involved over 18 months ago when it was just a building site,” she explains. The location is an enclave of to-die-for Georgian houses opposite Buckingham Palace. “After the previous theatre burnt down, Westminster Council had a clear vision for the site. The Council granted permission for 35 flats but insisted on a replacement theatre as well. It’s been an exciting journey for the team.” Lucy works alongside creative director Robert Mackintosh, executive artistic director David Gilmore, executive theatre director Guy Kitchenn and James Albrecht, studio director.
“It doesn’t look like a stereotypical theatre, does it?” muses Lucy, gazing towards the contemporary open plan ground floor reception and sweep of marble staircase. “St James is multifunctional. You can come here for coffee downstairs and fine dining upstairs. There are some great Italian signature dishes and a varied series of seasonal menus. Oh and never mind The Goring, we do afternoon tea here too! You can come see a show or play in the main house. And there’s comedy and cabaret in the studio.”
Lucy began her career in Liverpool, “a great city”, working in journalism and gradually moving into arts fund raising. It was the time when Liverpool was gearing up to be European Capital of Culture. She has since swapped the skyline of cranes over the northern city for that of Victoria. Lucy sits on the board of Victoria Business Improvement District. On her return to London, the theatre called. A five year stint as head of development at Hampstead Theatre was followed by the same post at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. All good grounding for her latest role.
“St James Theatre is privately funded which gives us tremendous freedom,” Lucy confirms, “We’re self funding. With all the arts cuts and changes to arts funding, art and business are increasingly intertwined. I believe we’re at the forefront of this approach. We’ve secured a five year deal with Create Victoria which is fronted by Land Securities. We’ve got a lot of local support as well.”
The joy of building anew means there isn’t a bad seat in the house. No awkward pillars – actually make that no pillars at all – in this theatre thanks. Just a shallow curve of seats descending to the stage below in ever decreasing arcs. Comfort is key in the quietly decorated interior. Drama is saved for the stage. “It’s a highly successful theatre for actors and the audience alike,” Lucy observes. “It’s got terrific acoustics – pitch perfect for classical concerts!”
“So far we’ve hosted five plays, all wonderfully different, from Sandi Toksvig’s Bully Boy to Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs. In our first six months we even received an Olivier nomination.” A huge show is planned for next year. Lucy reveals a series of spoilers will be released in the run up to a September announcement. Next year’s a big year for her family history too. She’s planning a large scale event in honour of her great grandfather to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the 1st World War. Australia House on the Strand is the venue. Sir John French attended its opening in 1918.
Lucy herself cuts quite a dash, complementing her innate prettiness with millinery zeal. Her theatrical headpieces have become something of a fixture at premieres. When the theatre’s staircase, designed by Mark Humphrey, was unveiled, she wore – what else? – a maquette of the staircase. To scale, of course. “I used to make a lot of my hats,” she says. “Recently I’ve been trying something a bit different – a collaboration with a local florist. Orchids are great – they last all evening without drooping.” Her most extraordinary hat to date was a three foot sofa atop an extravagance of ostrich feathers. She wore it to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. “It was properly upholstered by a Liverpudlian furniture maker.” Was it not a little heavy? “Darling, by mid afternoon I’d got used to it.” And with that, Lady Lucy French leaves the building.