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Islington Pub Theatres

Lucy McGuire tells us why theatre should be enjoyed with a pint

Written by . Published on July 4th 2011.

Islington Pub Theatres

IN New York, you’d call it off-Broadway, or off-off-Broadway, and in the UK, the Edinburgh International festival is renowned for it. But what many Londoners don’t know, is that ‘fringe’, or non-mainstream theatre, exists predominantly in the northern borough of Islington – and has done since the 1970s.

“By setting up pub theatres, we’re breaking these barriers – we’re changing the way the arts are presented and putting it into an atmosphere that people are used to. You can take your pint in and suddenly the opera feels much more appealing. Some people might think it’s strange but it makes sense. We are cutting through cultural boundaries.”

Walk down Upper Street, Angel, with a trained eye and you will start to notice that some of the pub frontages are not just ordinary places to buy a pint. Whereas you might think the giant theatrical institutions of the West End are the only place to go for leading musical theatre, Islington is echoing Shakespeare’s pioneering culture of pub theatres and making the arts more accessible to ‘the masses’.

La BohemeLa Boheme

“London is the theatre capital of the world,” says artistic director of The Kings Head pub theatre, Adam Spreadbury-Maher. “Children have access to the arts from a young age, thanks to the Arts Council who fund it. Yet many people don’t go to the West End or the opera because of its formal architecture, the language that surrounds it, and the price.

“By setting up pub theatres, we’re breaking these barriers – we’re changing the way the arts are presented and putting it into an atmosphere that people are used to. You can take your pint in and suddenly the opera feels much more appealing. Some people might think it’s strange but it makes sense. We are cutting through cultural boundaries.”

La BohemeLa Boheme

Australian-born Spreadbury Maher, moved to the capital for its arts scene six years ago. After dropping out of a directing course, he set up his own theatre company and OperaUpClose became resident at the Kings Head Theatre in Angel, Islington.

Walking in the footsteps of the late theatre manager and producer Dan Crawford, who died in 2005, was not an easy task.

“The widow of Dan Crawford, Stephanie, offered me the role in 2010, following his untimely death,” Adam says.

“There’d been 50 West End and Broadway transfers and it was the first pub theatre since the time of Shakespeare.

 “With a new artistic director, I knew I had to bring a new artistic direction.

“So I launched the Kings Head as an opera house, a first for the UK.”

Under the name ‘London’s Little Opera House’, the company started in Kennington, and later Kilburn, where the Italian composer Puccini’s famous operatic show La Boheme sold out and ran for six months.

After successfully becoming the longest continuously performed opera in history, it transferred to Soho for two seasons before joining London’s Little Opera House earlier this year. It is now part of four other productions staged in repertoire – or ‘in rep’ – the only opera theatre in the world, Adam says, where you can see a different show seven days a week, 365 days a year.

La BohemeLa Boheme

Some might wonder how an independently funded theatre group could possibly cope with the pressure. But it seems although the fringe is still an unknown phenomenon among London’s arts scene, this director lives and breathes theatre and is very much in demand.

Head 400 miles north over the border and the ‘other fringe’ of Edinburgh Festival will soon get underway for another year. But what many international visitors don’t realise is that the world-famous ‘Pleasance’ Theatre Trust, which has famously led the way for Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe, also has its sister site in Islington.

Situated off Caledonian Road, the registered arts charity has been the starting point of many established comedians and actors, with the Edinburgh Pleasance launching the careers of Frank Skinner, Graham Norton, Paul Merton and other successful acts. Down the road in Highbury Corner, the Hen and Chickens theatre bar has also been the home of up-and-coming comics.

Acts like Russell Brand and Jimmy Carr have been known to return to this watering hole-come-theatre space to try out new acts before they hit the West End. It’s important, Adam says, for comedians and even leading opera productions to never lose touch with their audience.

“These places are very important but it’s the people inside that make the real magic,” Adam says.

“I spend three nights a week talking to the audience and getting feedback.

“Half of our audience have never been to the opera before and the other half actually go to the Opera House on a regular basis, but it’s their first visit to the fringe. So it’s an amazing blend where we get aficionados with people who want to come out and just see a good show.”

La BohemeLa Boheme

Other venues, which have helped Islington grow into the fringe theatre capital, include The New Red Lion on City Road, and The Old Red Lion on St John Street which both stage theatre and comedy.

The Red Lion Theatres’ ‘Pay What you Can Thursdays’ provide a refreshing contrast to the rocketing box office prices of the West End and could be what Islington needs to help the Almeida theatre – a theatre experience which could be described as more mainstream and middle class than the pub scene theatres, yet is experiencing similar tight budgets as Arts Council funding seems to be dwindling.

“I hope people will come here and after a few visits will be ready to take the plunge and experience a West End opera house,’ Adam says, in support of both ends of the spectrum.

“Mainstream opera will never give you the experience of being so close to an opera singer which is what attracts people to the fringe.

“The closest seat in the opera house is further away from the actors at the back seat is in the pub theatre. People who go to the opera house love that – it’s magnificent.

“But we’re not replacing larger houses and the Royal Opera House and English Opera House are amazing institutions.”

Whether you’re on West End, off West End or even off off West End – it seems Islington’s leading the way for fringe theatre.

You can either take his word for it or like me, lose your operatic virginity and go down with a pint and watch yourself.

Because according to him, “my God, it’s phenomenal.”

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