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Let’s hear it for pub theatres

How do we get the word out – really out – about fringe theatre in general and pub theatres in particular? There’s cutting edge work going on all the time at, for example, The Finborough or Theatre 503 which is based in The Latchmere in Battersea.

My observation at many performances is that the audience mostly comprises three groups: very local people who know they’re on to a good thing, industry folk supporting performers and creatives or wanting to see them in action, and friends and relations of the cast The wider public are, usually, absent.

I have, for example, a friend who’s pretty switched on culturally. She goes to a lot of theatre (especially opera), concerts, exhibitions and museums. She also reads newspapers and a lot of books.  When I mentioned the other day that I was going to a show at the Landor that week and another at the Hope the week after I had to explain to her what these venues are. She had, almost incredibly to me, never heard of pub theatres. They had, until I enlightened her, passed completely under her radar. And this is only the most recent of many conversations with different people that I’ve had along these lines.

It means that London’s many dozens of pub theatres, not to mention the sprinkling in other big cities such as Birmingham and Manchester, are missing tricks. I’ve often seen then very sparsely attended.  London Pub Magazine is doing its best to raise loads of awareness but we all need to work harder at it.

Of course it isn’t all good. Theatre never is. But I’ve seen some fabulous shows in pub theatres. Charles Court Opera Company’s The Mikado, which I caught at The King’s Head in Islington last week, for instance, was one of the best bits of theatre I’ve seen this year. What a shame that to many people, travelling to Islington from a fair way off just to see “a  little show in a pub” seems not worth making the effort for.

We need to do some public education – the National Theatre and the West End are not the be-all and end-all of theatre. In a decent pub theatre – and there are SO many – you can get a pleasant meal and a pint (or whatever) as well as a show at a fraction of the price you’ll pay in a glitzier venue. At both the Bridge House in Penge and the Brockley Jack in Brockley I have recently arrived having already eaten and ordered just a pot of excellent tea. Yes, pubs really have moved on. Let’s all make the most of them.

There’s something very refreshing about low budget theatre, without fancy sets and costumes, because it forces the focus back to basics. Do the performers convince or move us? You don’t actually need wings and spacious dressing rooms to stage powerful theatre, do you? Surely its words, actions and faces which carry (or not) the show?

Three Little Maids from School. Charles Court Opera’s The Mikado at King’s Head, Islington

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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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