Tucked away in leafy Gaisford Street above the Lion and Unicorn pub is a vital organ, kept alive by a passion for storytelling, and a dedicated team of hardworking theatre practitioners and associated artists. It’s called Giant Olive, and I founded it back in 2008.
My name’s George Sallis and I’m Kentish Town born and bred. In the 1950s my grandfather moved from Cyprus to Rochester Terrace, a stone’s throw away from the Cathedral of St Andrew on Kentish Town Road, where a number of important family events have since taken place. One such occasion was the christening of my Uncle John, who started the myth of the Giant Olive – which helped me forge my own Kentish Town destiny.
It all began thirty years ago in the chaotic Sunday lunches we used to have with my huge Greek family. As my grandmother brought out plate after plate of wonderful food, I’d be waiting to pounce on the giant green olives, which I’d then proceed to devour, hidden under the dinner table.
My Uncle John, to whom I looked up with immense awe, would pull me aside and announce (so all could hear): ‘Georgie, if you are a very good boy, next summer I will take you to our family home in Cyprus – and to a very special place, where the Giant Olive grows!’ I remember being so excited I could barely contain myself.
Every week I’d wonder whether Uncle John had decided if I’d been a good boy, and if I could indeed get my very own giant olive.
It was only many years later that I discovered he had been lying to me: there was no giant olive. But when I had to find a name for our fledgling theatre company, it seemed like the perfect choice – in honour of the little boy that I once was and my Uncle John, who taught me the importance of myth, imagination and the capacity to keep dreams alive.
On the 21st August 2008, I launched Giant Olive Theatre Company with Moliere’s ‘The Would be Gentleman’ (‘Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme’). The Theatre gods sent three nail-biting trials to the fledgling company in the final week of rehearsals, including the loss of two lead actors and the theft of costumes; however I stepped in to play the fencing master, and the show not only went on – but received critical recognition and four star reviews.
Now coming up to its fourth anniversary as resident company, Giant Olive has turned a small black box theatre above a pub into one of the most celebrated spots on the London fringe circuit. We’re chuffed that it’s been applauded for its ‘vibrant and varied fringe rep’ by Time Out, and has developed an eclectic programme of new writing.
Like what? Well, for a start, ‘Kitty and Damnation’, which featured Downton Abbey star and Giant Olive’s Patron, Hugh Bonneville; Classic pieces such as the famous Dickens Christmas shows directed by West End Legend Ray Shell (Starlight Express, The Lion King), dance pieces curated by FAME / New York City Ballet star Antonia Franceschi, and featuring dancers from Rambert’s Artistic Director, Mark Baldwin and Sir Richard Alston (The Place, Royal Ballet) and scratch comedy from top BBC comedians and comedy writers.
Little more than a year ago the future of Kentish Town’s only theatre was in serious jeopardy when the freeholders went into liquidation. The local press and member of parliament Frank Dobson rallied round and after the arrival of new owners Geronimo Inns, the long term future of this very special theatre in KT has been saved.
Yet many local residents are still yet to discover this hidden gem in their midst.
So, if you’re passing by on Gaisford Street and want to see a show, pop over to Bianca or Max on the Box Office, say ‘I’m a Kentishtowner’ and get £2 off the concessionary price ticket. But be quick, the first three shows of the year have already been sellouts.
And this week don’t miss The Recovery Position, a play about Irish immigrants and identity, which runs from tomorrow, March 13 until Saturday March 18.
Words: George Sallis, Founder of Giant Olive