We meet the artistic director of the Marylebone Theatre, which he hopes will emerge as a new star of the (north) West End

Words: Jonathan Whiley

Mid-morning in Marylebone and serendipity is afoot. A stone’s throw from Baker Street – of Sherlock Holmes fame – and the artistic director of the neighbourhood’s new theatre is taking me back to his school days with Benedict Cumberbatch, whom he played opposite in a school play. “It had a really good theatre department and had a number of people who have gone on to be very successful in theatre, including Benedict Cumberbatch, who was a few years above me.”

Even as a teenager Alexander Gifford says that he recognised Benedict was “a supernaturally gifted actor.” “He was unbelievably good,” he says of the man who made his mark as Conan Doyle’s eccentric detective. “He was three years above me when I arrived in my first term and he was playing Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. I remember thinking ‘wow, who is this guy?’.”

And yet their drama teacher advised Benedict not to pursue a career in theatre. “They said it was a very competitive industry. I remember feeling outraged!.”

It didn’t derail either of them. Aged 17, Alexander was cast in cult Indian comedy ‘Bombay Boys’ – alongside the likes of Naveen Andrews – and would go on to set up a theatre company in Gloucestershire. “After seven or eight years, having cut my teeth as a director and producer, I moved to London and this opportunity came up a year later,” the 43-year-old says.

The chance to run a new theatre inside Rudolf Steiner House – as a Steiner trained teacher and having visited the venue for 20 years – was one he wasn’t going to pass up.

He interviewed 18 months ago and set out a vision to the board for the newly refurbished venue. “I just had this hunch that the venue was so well located, so unique in its dimensions and proportions, that we would be very likely to be able to emerge as a significant new venue; like the Almeida or Donmar for this part of London.”

With the stage now the same proportions as those in the West End, Alexander says it “opens up the possibility of incubating shows for transfers to large venues”, adding: “We are aiming to be a producing house, so we’re going to create our own work but we also have incoming shows. We are not just theatre; we have music, spoken word and comedy starting in the new year.”

The Marylebone Theatre’s debut show is Dmitry (until November 5), a new version of Friedrich Schiller’s last, unfinished play. The script is the culmination of “80 or 90 drafts” between Alexander and playwright, Peter Oswald.

The ambition and production values are not going unnoticed with Mark Rylance among the patrons. “It’s a big seal of approval for us,” says Alexander, whose upcoming programme includes A Sherlock Carol from November 18 to Jan 7. “It’s the unlikely premise that Sherlock Holmes investigates the death of Ebenezer Scrooge. We are in the right part of the world and it’s a charming, delightful Christmas show.”

Formerly Steiner House, Alexander says the venue has had “a fantastic response” from the local community. “We are doing loads of community aimed projects; classes, courses, community choirs. After one community choir event, one of the locals said, ‘so this our theatre now’, which is what you want.”