Posts tagged ‘hen & chickens’

19 February, 2010

‘I’d rather be in the pub’ is not an excuse

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.

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14 December, 2009

Lady Julia

Annabel Topham and James Kenward in Lady Julia

Annabel Topham and James Kenward in Lady Julia. Image courtesy of In The Lamplight

Hen and Chickens Theatre, 1 – 19 December 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog and cross-posted to The Collective Review

In The Lamplight’s Lady Julia brings August Strindberg’s seminal Miss Julie bang up to date, throwing together high-born Julia (Annabel Topham) and her father’s valet John (James Kenward) on New Year’s Eve 2008. It’s possible the company are hoping to replicate the success of Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie, which updated the unlikely lovers and their tragic liaison from the 1874 of Strindberg’s play to 1945, but Lady Julia takes poorly to its new 21st century context.

The daughter of a Duke (or an Earl; James and Ben Kenward’s modern vernacular translation contradicts itself on this point) having a one night stand with the hired help just isn’t the life or death matter it would have been in 1874, or even 1945. John and Julia seem more concerned with the jeers of the other household staff (who hilariously sing Ali G and Shaggy’s ‘Me Julie’ from offstage) than the media or the Duke’s reaction. Modern culture is tolerant enough of sexual indiscretion that the stakes for Julia and John never seem high enough to justify her second act histrionics. They’re certainly too low to justify suicide.

Finicky contextual details like this would be easier to overlook if the whole production were as engaging as the first act. From her first entrance, Topham asserts herself as a flighty but nonetheless confident and commanding celeb-aristo, forever drumming her fingers to dissipate nervous energy, in contrast to Kenward’s stoic John. But once the deed is done and contemporary attitudes to sex and reputation actually become relevant to their predicament, the incongruities become harder to ignore.

The downward slide begins with an incongruous physical theatre sequence, the only dramatic purpose of which seems to be to suggest the passage of time (which could be achieved with a blackout) and how John and Julia are spending it (which becomes apparent soon enough anyway). A scattershot and repetitive second act follows, in which director Gabriella Santinelli makes use of Topham’s impressive emotional range by having her change mood instantaneously every three or four lines. Each moment is believable in itself, but when strung together the impression they give is that Julia is bipolar, rather than simply tired, drunk and naturally skittish.

Amy Rhodes provides welcome relief as Christine the cook, delivering a comparatively understated and consistent performance, and refreshingly calling John out on all the bullshit Julia willingly swallows. For Strindberg, the character represented everything he despised: a peasant without aspirations to higher things. In this production, her unambitious pragmatism actually seems an attractive alternative to the others’ flights of fancy.

Written by James and Ben Kenward after August Strindberg

Crew includes Gabriella Santinelli (director)

Cast includes James Kenward (John), Amy Rhodes (Christine) and Annabel Topham (Lady Julia)

Need a second opinion?