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Hurrah for pub theatres

Let’s hear it for pub theatres. Unheard of when I was a London teenager in the 1960s, there are now over 70 of them across the capital and they’re beginning to mushroom in other big cities too.

In my youth there was a pub on almost every corner – many of them filthy, smoke-filled dives which “nice” girls like me were advised to avoid by, for example, parents, teachers and the police. The bigger Victorian ones had rooms above which you could hire for a pittance or sometimes book free for a meeting or function on the assumption that the people attending would buy drinks downstairs. And those are the rooms which in some cases now function as fringe theatres – returning to a tradition linking inns, theatres and story telling which goes back at least to medieval times.

And, although budgets are usually precarious, they hang in there and go on producing interesting work. I’ve seen some fine shows, for example, at the Finborough, near Earls Court and the Old Red Lion, Islington (which has a dog on its old  external sign board just to keep you on your toes) and it’s almost always worth the hike to Highgate for anything staged by Upstairs at the Gatehouse.

A recent discovery, since I moved “home” to London in 2016, is the Bridge House in Penge where I’ve seen several strong shows and where they make the best pot of tea I’ve had anywhere. (How pubs have moved with the times.) Few of these places have decent loos, of course. Witness the Old Red Lion, for example, where the word “jakes” comes to mind but hey you can’t have everything and the shows are good.

I’ve often travelled around London for shows at, say, The Landor in Clapham, The Hope in Islington or the nearby Hen and Chickens. It’s a really rich seam of theatre but, sadly, people who aren’t really steeped in theatre often don’t know about it. Thousands travel in from the home counties for National Theatre or the West End. They don’t, on the whole, do it for The Rosemary Branch, The Oxford Arms in Camden or the Brockley Jack. Yet, it’s such a well established phenomenon now that there is even a very informative magazine London Pub Theatres (@pubtheatres1) devoted to it.

Last week I was at the King’s Head in Islington for an enjoyable production of Carmen, reworked and scaled down for 2019 Britain. The King’s Head claims to be the oldest London pub theatre, Fascinatingly and ironically it soon won’t be. This year it is to move into new, purpose built premises in Islington Square. So that’s a successful pub theatre which has outgrown its origins. Thus our industry goes on cyclically  reinventing itself. And pubs have morphed into respectable places to go.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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