The Rebirth of Pub Theatre

The Lamb  Inn Theatre Eastbourne

Boozy function rooms were once theatre’s radical heart. Rising costs and the changing face of the fringe threatened all that – but pubs around Britain are pulling in audiences with their spirited productions.

For 50 years, pub theatres have been synonymous with the London fringe. Spaces such as the old Bush and the Gate – tiny function rooms, stuffed with seats and painted slapdash black – were theatre’s radical edges, pushing at sensibilities and possibilities alike. They were a launchpad – maybe the only one – for new talent. Artists as distinct as Katie Mitchell and Kathy Burke made their first shows above pubs.

These days, however, you’re as likely to find a dusty rediscovery or a staid curio as you are the next big thing. The Play That Goes Wrong – an Olivier award-winner now on Broadway – started out at the Old Red Lion five years ago, but conventional wisdom has it that pub theatres, like pubs themselves, aren’t what they once were. Easy as it is to romanticise the past, there’s a fair bit of truth in that. London theatre has changed – almost beyond recognition. Pub theatres haven’t. Run on a shoestring, stuck in shabby black boxes, how could they?

As big subsidised theatres have picked up experimental fare, pub theatres have faced an identity crisis. At the same time, the fringe itself has mutated. Found spaces have put down roots, while venues such as Southwark Playhouse and the Arcola have emerged and quickly expanded into new premises, sprouting their own bars and second spaces in the process, arguably outstripping their boozier rivals. Neil McPherson, long-serving artistic director of the Finborough in Earl’s Court, says there’s “a lot more competition now” – both for shows and for audiences.

The Lamb Inn Theatre, Eastbourne

The Lamb Inn Theatre, Eastbourne

Public houses are built on storytelling: these shared spaces sit within communities in a way other venues can only dream of. At the Old Red Lion, football fans rub shoulders with playgoers. The two groups might even – gasp – overlap. Shabbiness might be pub theatres’ secret weapon, says Clive Judd, new artistic director of the Old Red Lion. Their informality extends beyond audiences, to artists – those at odds with institutional theatres. “I’ve never felt uncomfortable here,” he insists.

“Pub theatre is absolutely and uniquely British,” says Lou Stein, the American director who established the Gate above an Irish pub in Notting Hill in 1979. He’d just relocated from New York, where the off-off-Broadway scene had started 20 years earlier in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village. For Stein, now running the inclusive Chickenshed theatre company, it’s a way for theatre to flourish away from and in opposition to the mainstream and its gatekeepers.

McPherson, too, believes the mainstream is skewed by its “obsession with writers who are photogenic and give a really good interview”. Scan the Sunday supplements, full of bright young things, and he might have a point. “It’s fair to say a lot of my writers have personal hygiene problems and probably shouldn’t be let out of the house – but that’s a writer.”

The work should follow suit. Pub theatres don’t do polish, and for Judd, that’s key. “If you’re going to develop writers, they have to recognise what’s not working. You can only do that in front of a live audience.” Rather than putting plays through workshops and endless redrafts, pubs tend to push scripts through to production, warts and all. “You can find an obscure play and have it on in three to six months,” says McPherson. Subsidised theatres, by contrast, think a year ahead, minimum.

The history of pub theatre is patchy. Though a few Victorian taverns were annexed to theatres – Sadler’s Wells at its start, for example – the first pub theatre proper was founded in 1968, when Leonie Scott-Matthews set up in a disused skittle alley beneath the Freemason’s Arms in Hampstead. It would be three years before Pentameters, still run by Scott-Matthews today, found itself a permanent home above the Horseshoe, half a mile away. In that time, Dan Crawford had started the King’s Head on Upper Street, Islington, a venue he ran until his death in 2005.

When Stein arrived at the Gate in 1979, pub theatres were starting to spring up all over town: the Bush to its west, the Finborough to the south, the Old Red Lion north. “Each was its own thing,” Stein remembers. “People weren’t connected to each other, or the bigger picture as they are now.” 

Pub theatres are now popping up around the country. Though never exclusively “a London thing”, venues elsewhere tended to house fringe shows. That’s changing - all on the sort of sweetheart deals of old. Further proof, then, that it’s far from last orders for pub theatre.

Taken from an article in The Guardian, May 2017