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January 9, 2011

London Pub Theatre

by Val Reynolds
Pub culture is changing in London.  This of course has always been so, but it seems to have speeded up in recent times.  Demographic changes in certain areas have led to pub closures as new groups move in who do not drink alcohol and for whom a pub has little attraction.  Receipts dwindle and the shutters go down.  Other pubs are saved by moving with the times.  The smoking ban has certainly made them more family friendly places, and more appealing to those who may have frequented them in the past but were driven away by the hazy fumes of cigarette smoke.  Comfy sofas, much improved food menus and ranges of better quality wine draw in a different crowd.

And pub theatre seems to be thriving.  Not that it’s a newcomer to the London scene.  The Bush theatre above the pub on Shepherds Bush Green has been there for decades, as has the Finborough in Earls Court.  The Pentameters pub theatre in Hampstead claims to be the oldest in London.  The Etcetera Theatre above the Oxford Arms in Camden Town recently made the news by putting on a horror show so frightening that it had members of the audience running out screaming  into the street!

More and more pub owners see that a profitable use (both in money and community terms) can be made out of the large space up the stairs from the pub and two particularly excellent ones are, I believe, worthy of mention.
First up is Upstairs at the Gatehouse, which is where it says it is, above the Gatehouse pub in Highgate village.  It puts on a mixture of professional and non-professional productions (I hesitate to use the word amateur as this often conjures up a false impression of what’s on offer), and the standard is consistently high. The theatre’s been functioning for over a decade and attracts an audience of all sorts (exactly as a community-based theatre should), including the ‘celebs’ of the area (the leader of the Labour party lives a couple of stonethrows away, for example).

A Slice of Saturday Night

A Slice of Saturday Night

Why traipse into the West End and pay those impossible West End prices when for less than half the cost you can spend a wonderful evening out in an intimate space.  You can even enjoy a delicious Loseley icecream in the interval for a mere £1.50!  Currently showing is ‘A Slice of Saturday Night’, an 80s musical about the 60s which is absolutely great.  Watch out for  ‘Troy Boy’, a reworking of Offenbach’s ‘La Belle Helene’, in the weeks to come.


The other relative newcomer worthy of mention is the Cock Tavern on the Kilburn High Road.  A much more intimate space than the Gatehouse, it made its name with almost its first foray into the world of theatre with a company called Operaupclose and their version of La Boheme. 

La boheme

La boheme, photography Leonora Saunders

With the first rows of the audience almost sitting on the playing space (and those in the back rows not that far behind) it certainly was up close!  With handsomely rewritten lyrics transporting the hovel in Paris to a typical student digs near you and talented fresh-faced young singers delivering them, it really was a wonderful experience.  The ‘coup de theatre’ was performing the second act, which takes place in a tavern, in the public bar of the pub itself.  I think that by the time I saw the production (back there for a second run by popular demand), the locals had got used to the strange goings on in their pub, but I’d have liked to have seen one of the earlier performances!



Jeannette Nelson Arts Critic

Jeannette Nelson: Arts Critic

So, there are some thoughts on what’s struck me as interesting.  But if you’ve got a local pub that has been enterprising enough to use some of its space for theatrical endeavours, why don’t you check it out sometime.  I’d be surprised if you were disappointed!

Jeannette is a bit of a culture vulture who enjoys art exhibitions, cinema and classical music, but her main interest is the theatre. For several years she ran theatre discussion groups for which her MA in Modern Drama together with teaching skills stood her in good stead. She prefers to concentrate on the many off West End and fringe productions as well as that real treasure of the London theatre scene, the National.


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