Written for The Collective Review, 19 February 2010
It’s understandable that a lot of people would rather spend their evening in the pub than at the theatre. Who cares if the tickets are more affordable than you might think? Theatres are stuffy and elitist, plays are boring, and you can’t even fortify yourself beforehand or commiserate properly afterwards because the beer is expensive and the wine is expensive and nasty…
…all right, you’ve caught me; that was a test. If you found yourself showering that paragraph in indignant spittle then give yourself a pat on the back and move on. If, on the other hand, you found yourself nodding in agreement, keep reading: this article is for you.
I’m taken by surprise on a regular basis by people (theatre people and ‘normal’ people alike) who have no idea that there are theatres in pubs. It surprises me because I see plays staged in little studios above or behind London pubs all the time (I’m the British Theatre Guide’s current go-to guy for pub theatre), and because they seem to me to be such a winning formula.
In this city at least, pub theatres (and theatre pubs – there’s a delicate distinction) are everywhere. The tickets and the drinks alike are affordable. There’s none of that gin-quaffing air-kissing atmosphere that puts so many people off the theatre. The sets and lighting are often basic, but that encourages directorial innovation, and there’s a wealth of interesting, well-performed work to be found as a result. So how come everyone I talk to reacts like pub theatre is London’s best-kept secret?
I think it’s largely a marketing issue. The first time I visit a particular pub theatre I often realise I’ve walked past the pub before without realising there was a theatre in it. From the street, the only evidence that – for instance – the Oxford Arms in Camden also houses the Etcetera Theatre is a sandwich board in the porch. Presumably the publicans are worried pub-only punters could be put off by the thought of sharing the bar with a bunch of ginned-up luvvies.
Equally, while they don’t deliberately obscure the fact, few theatres make a selling point of being situated in a pub. It’s possible to book online and turn up at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington and only then realise it takes its name from the pub it’s attached to; likewise the King’s Head or Hen and Chickens in Islington. The name ‘Theatre503‘ in a listing or review does not immediately suggest a connection to the Latchmere pub in Battersea, and the Greenwich Playhouse’s website studiously avoids mentioning that it can only be accessed through an O’Neill’s. They seem to want to be defined as theatres that happen to share premises with a pub, rather than the joint entity ‘pub theatre’.
It’s like the pubs and their theatres are determined to be the awkward bedfellows they are on paper – in which case we need to be the mutual friends determined to show them how perfect they actually are for one another. No one’s consciously keeping people in the dark about the pub theatre movement, but people are in the dark nonetheless, and that benefits nobody.