London's Pub Theaters
Los Angeles Times
It’s Saturday afternoon in the jam-packed Old Red Lion on London’s shopper-crowded St. John Street. A babble of beer-fueled chatter – including some salty heckles – is ricocheting off the TV screens, while the pub’s lone server pours pints of frothy ale in double-quick time. Local soccer team Arsenal is playing just down the road and the game isn’t going well.
But nestled among the red-shirted lager-lovers are several quiet quaffers, their tables topped with glasses of wine and the occasional well-thumbed paperback. They don’t even seem to know there’s a game on. The reason? This is a pub with two sets of regulars and the second group is waiting patiently for the matinee performance of The Revenger’s Tragedy at the tiny theater upstairs.
London is crammed like a chorus line dressing room with old-school pubs, but several dozen are also part of a lesser-known theatrical tradition. Since Shakespeare’s time, greasepaint-hugging taverns across the city have adapted their spare rooms to host performances for patrons who like to sip a show or two without moving too far from their favorite bar taps.
Like a permanent fringe movement, this eclectic pub theater scene still thrives, with Londoners and savvy visitors regularly squeezing into 50-seat studios for dramas, comedies, musicals and even operas. And although tickets rarely top $25, quality isn’t sacrificed: Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman cut their acting teeth in local pub theaters, so the next breakout star could be just a creaky-floored soliloquy away.
Today, squinting at photos of shows past on the Old Red Lion’s walls, I don’t spot any Winslets or Rickmans among stills from Diary of a Madman and The Importance of Being Earnest. But since it’s almost 3 p.m., it’s time to join the snaking line climbing the carpeted stairs to the theater. Shuffling in, I slide onto a bench in front of the stageless performance area.
Two feet away, a spotlighted actor – studiously ignoring the audience – is doing push-ups. It’s like being a fly-on-the-wall while someone goes about their daily business. The raucous pub downstairs is soon forgotten as the doors quietly close and the enveloping silence tingles with nervous expectation.
There’s just time to read the program and discover this actor’s extensive résumé of movies, TV shows and a wide array of stage productions before the house lights drop and we’re plunged right in. Watching a play in a theater this small is like being in one of those theme park flight simulators where you can’t take your eyes off the visuals and you feel every forceful action.
Penned by Thomas Middleton in the early 1600s and echoing some of Shakespeare’s racier plays, today’s bloodthirsty story of familial betrayal and murderous intent has been updated to the 1980s. But since the space is so tiny, the violence is heightened by proximity. We’re so close to the action, in fact, that when one character lights a cigarette, half the audience coughs.
The staging is sparse, with black walls, a multi-use table and several TV screens compensating for the absence of scenery. But it’s the frenetic, sometimes vein-popping acting that keeps everything relentlessly gripping, especially during a couple of gruesome death scenes. When the interval arrives, I unclench my body and stumble downstairs – I need a drink before round two.
It’s this level of intimacy and involvement with the performances that lures aficionados to pub theaters, according to a couple of die-hard fans I run into a week later. Ahead of me in the Friday night staircase queue at West London’s Finborough Theatre, husband and wife Gene and Ruth Yonuschot from Chapel Hill, North Carolina have been immersing themselves in London’s theaterland for decades.
The National, Royal Court and Donmar Warehouse appeal to their avant-garde tastes but these days they also save time for pub venues on their regular UK visits. And the Finborough – tucked above a wine bar on an anonymous residential street – is a long-established favorite.
“We were looking for something on a Sunday 15 years ago and we took a gamble on this place. The performances were incredible and we’ve been here about 10 times since,” says Ruth as we file in to snag our cushioned bench seats. “These smaller theaters are just brilliant and we tell people about them all the time,” adds Gene. “So long as you do your research and know where the pubs are and which tube stop or bus route to take, they are always worth it.”
Tonight’s performance is much less physical than The Revenger’s Tragedy. But while the play – A Life by Hugh Leonard – starts gently, I’m soon riveted by the bittersweet story of an old man recalling the missed opportunities and failed relationships of his life. Complete with flashback scenes of his younger self, it’s surprisingly moving and feels, at times, like a Beckett or Pinter play.
The performances – especially from rain-coated veteran Hugh Ross (who has appeared in hundreds of professional productions and films as diverse as Trainspotting and The Iron Lady) – are natural and engrossing. And the themes raised by the narrative are rich enough to fuel a few of my own pub conversations with friends for years to come.
Later, strolling the rain-slicked streets back to Earls Court Underground Station, I mull over how these greasepaint taverns differ from the larger London theaters I typically attend. There’s one crucial distinction.
My budget usually allows me to sit in the distant nosebleed sections of large auditoria, where it’s easy to feel like a disinterested spectator. But in pub theaters, there are few bad seats and the in-your-face approach means you can’t avoid feeling connected to the story and the actors relating it. Which is why I’ll be back in search of the next generation of Winslets and Rickmans on my next trip over.
If you go:
Seats are limited at London’s pub theaters, so booking ahead via venue websites is key. Tickets start around $8 and popular spots include the Old Red Lion (www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk), Finborough Theatre (www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk) and Camden’s Etcetera Theatre (www.etceteratheatre.com). Opera fans should also hit Islington’s King’s Head (www.kingsheadtheatre.org), while North London’s Hen & Chickens (www.thehenandchickenstheatrebar.co.uk) specializes in eclectic comedy shows as well as new drama.