Regional Excellence  

Susan Elkin was invited to The Bamboo House, Fourth Monkey’s new regional training centre in Bristol and jumped at the chance to discover more.

“This is one of the best decisions I have ever made” says Rosie who is talking to me in a comfortable meeting room at Fourth Monkey’s new training centre, The Bamboo House in Bristol. She, and two other students I’m chatting to, are doing the one year course in acting and theatre making and planning to apply for drama school at the end of it.

“This is the blanket I didn’t know I needed” says Abbie from Wales, who had to turn down a scholarship place at Mountview last year for family reasons. “I was deemed too young for drama school” adds Ellis, giving me a blue eyed grin and looking about 12 (he isn’t) over his face mask, “but the Fourth Monkey audition was the most challenging and the most fun, so here I am.”

The Bamboo House, which opened in September 2021 and is presented as “a regional centre of excellence”, is Fourth Monkey’s latest development. Founded by Steve Green (with whom Ellis tells me he clicked immediately) in 2010, Fourth Monkey is now well established in London in a building near Finsbury Park.

The new venture is part of Fourth Monkey’s commitment to make drama training increasingly accessible and inclusive – and to decentralise it. At present 39 students are enrolled on the one year foundation course in acting and theatre making and they work in three groups of 13. “That means they get plenty of individual attention says Head of Centre, Paloma Oakenfold, as she makes me tea and jokes that she’s quite good at that because she used to make it for Sean Holmes when she was assistant director at Lyric Hammersmith.

“Later this year we shall start the Foundation Degree here and there will be an MA, perhaps for ten students based here from September” says Paloma, who also runs the MA based at Fourth Monkey in London, which means a lot of familiarity with the trains between Bristol Temple Meads and London Paddington.

Paloma lives in Bristol and the staff who teach the students are all based in the area. “We want to offer work to people in this region. That’s part of the thinking” she tells me. I’m taken to watch part of an interesting class whose members are studying – on their feet –Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings. Another class is writing, performing and feeding back on monologues. There’s a great deal of concentrated, committed work going on.

The building, which is Grade 2 listed, is stunning. As at Fourth Monkey in London, it’s a shoe-free zone, so you have to leave your boots or whatever at the door and pad about in your socks. It’s a quirky policy but it means that the carpets are spotless and the whole place immaculately clean. It also, I infer, symbolises respect for the shared space and the activity therein.

The Bamboo House is a spacious late Georgian/early Victorian town house on a serene, elegant square. There is a grassy tree-rich mini park in the centre of the square where students can mix in the open air, eat lunch and so on. You could hardly have a more idyllic setting – yet it’s only a short walk from the Cabot Centre, a shopping mall where some of the students have part-time jobs, and the rest of the city’s multifarious offerings including a rich theatre scene.

Fourth Monkey is renting the building, which has been collaboratively renovated by the landlord in line with the school’s needs. Thus the original main reception rooms and bedrooms are now big studios sympathetically modernised in line with Grade 2 listing requirements, in grey and white with dado rails and magnificent cast iron radiators still in place and painted in rich blue. The former servants’ quarters in the basement provide a kitchen, offices and recreation space. The top, attic floor is not yet in use but will be ready for MA students later this year. A staircase, with a nice antique wooden hand rail, winds its way up and is lit by a splendid lantern above in the roof. You’d be hard put to find a more attractive building to hone your craft in and, of course, there are some fine inspirational quotes on the walls – a Fourth Monkey trademark.

When Bristol Fourth Monkey students stage shows, it hooks up with local venues such as Circomedia, a converted church which is also on Portland Square. “The London MA students are coming to the Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol and we’re taking part in the Bath Festival” says Paloma, adding that she and her colleagues are very grateful for the large number of links they have. “We’re also running teacher training sessions to introduce ourselves to local teachers – the next one is fully booked which is very pleasing! – and, of course, all auditions are completely free.”

Finally, I ask Paloma why they picked Bristol. Isn’t there a crying need for good training in the north-east? “We knew there was a network we could tap into here and that’s working really well. Many of the students are from Bristol, but quite a few have moved here for the training and there’s SO much going on in the city”.

I suspect this won’t be Fourth Monkey’s last regional centre of excellence.