Bike Shed workers and volunteers, from left, David Lockwood, Ben Goldstone, Anna Johnson, Fin Irwin, Neil Broom and Chris Lacey

Just over a year after opening Exeter’s Bike Shed Theatre is in rude health.

Every city has one; an area which seems to contain a few too many kebab shops and themed bars in close proximity and Exeter in Devon is no different. On a Friday and Saturday night the top end of Fore Street is awash with “exuberant” young men and women letting off the steam of a hard week’s work in a selection of garishly lit clubs / bars. However amidst this maelstrom of alcopops and raging hormones lies The Bike Shed theatre.

Described by musician Paul MacMahon who recently played there as “a haven of excited, sophisticated calm” the Bike Shed is a cosy and compact hangout for local theatre, comedy or live music aficionados. The Shed, opened in February 2010, comprises a comfy, intimate bar and a compact yet versatile 60 seat performance space. The bar serves a range of tasty vegetarian food courtesy of a partnership with “The Plant Cafe” on the city’s Cathedral green. Alternatively punters can sample the creations of award winning cocktail virtuoso Chris Lacey, whose burlesque themed beverage “from Josephine” scooped top prize at The South West Bar Tending Fraternity Cocktail Competition.

As for the theatre itself the Shed is now the only producing theatre in a 30 mile radius since the financial collapse of the city’s Northcott Theatre. Its main focus is producing an eclectic programme featuring works by eminent playwrights (Coward, Pinter, Shakespeare) interspersed with new works by up and coming dramatists.  One of the company’s most successful shows has been Bristol playwright Shaun McCarthy’s “Beanfield”. The play tells the story of the tragic examples of police brutality surrounding the1985 Stonehenge festival. The critical success of the piece led to it transferring to Bristol’s Tobacco Factory in summer 2010. The Shed is also committed to using local acting talent “wherever possible”.

The Bike Shed is the brainchild of actor / directors Fin Irwin and David Lockwood. Originally intended as a temporary venue for a production by Lockwood’s Particular Theatre Company, Lockwood and Irwin decided to make a go of it as a going concern.

“The decision was due to the amount of work that had gone into getting the space ready. In the end, it was Fin who decided that we should bite the bullet (I was more hesitant at first) and we were then delighted when the landlord let us stay on a percentage of profits basis” says Lockwood

Before the inception of the Shed, Irwin had cut his teeth in arts venue management on an attempt to start up a similar project with Tabernacle Arts. His attempts to establish a new arts hub for the city were rebuffed by banks, unwilling to take a punt on the project due to Fin’s lack of experience and the economic climate at the time. Although the two projects are unrelated; “without Fin’s experience of trying to set up a venue, it is unlikely that we’d have had the chutzpah to go for it.” says Lockwood.

Tom Hackney and Benjamin Warren in The Bike Shed's recent production of Harold Pinter's "The Dumb Waiter"

The shed encountered its first significant difficulties during the refurbishment and expansion of the venue in the summer of 2010, as Lockwood explains:

“We were incredibly naive in thinking that because we were doing something positive, everyone would be helpful along the way.”

The inauguration of the new theatre space was held up by the red tape involved in changing the use of the space from a Chinese restaurant (the Shed’s previous incarnation) to a performance venue. The delay meant that a three month program had to be performed in the bar, a situation Lockwood describes as “a definite low”. Balancing the running the venue, directing shows and placating the local council was an arduous task, but one that has left the Shed “in a much better position” with the management having “learnt valuable lessons.”

Despite the recent shake-up of the arts council’s funding system coupled with the arts cuts imposed by the new government Lockwood states that the Shed has “been very lucky”  and that he is “thrilled with the way the Arts Council have treated us.” Although the application process can be drawn out the theatre has successfully gained project grants to help run the theatre and develop local talent.

Lockwood believes that the constraints imposed on the arts council’s budget by the recent cuts will lead the council to be “relatively conservative in its funding decisions” preventing “smaller, more experimental companies from getting access to funds.” These fears seem to have been borne out by the recent grant cuts of companies like Forkbeard Fantasy, a multimedia performance company based in Bristol.

“This government doesn’t have much time for the arts, but I think this is something which is reflected in this country in general. Too many people have had a bad time with theatre and so are put off for life.”

Lockwood talks of trying to “make the evening about more than just seeing a play” creating a cosy comfortable atmosphere to ensure newcomers get off on the right foot with theatre. Striking a balance between producing theatre which is both accessible and innovative is a complex task. However if the buzz created by The Bike Shed theatre is anything to go by then behind the kebab shop chaos of Fore street Exeter, that balance is being struck, and struck well.