Off West End: a quick guide to Islington’s pub theatres
London has a rich performing arts heritage. But there’s a world away from the commercially-fired venues which populate the West End, drawing audiences from all over the world to experience shows which, in some cases, run for many years – The Lion King and The Woman In Black, to name but a few. There’s a wealth of smaller, more intimate ‘Off West End’ and fringe theatres in the capital, some of which sit above pubs, but all contribute in their own way to London’s astonishingly diverse cultural landscape.
Pub theatre appears uniquely British. For many of us, it’s a cherished tradition, and a more affordable way to experience theatre than a trip to the West End. Pub theatregoers can expect to see shows which are altogether more improvisational, experimental and less polished than the material put out by subsidised venues, but nonetheless are compelling and pertinent to the issues of the day.
The creation of the pub theatre was a stroke of genius. After all, it makes sense to capitalise on a readymade audience, a group of people already assembled. And besides, what’s not to like about enjoying a drink downstairs before venturing upstairs to catch a show?
Islington, N1, boasts a handful of pub theatres within its boundaries. Pubs will always be important for purposes of social interaction and community cohesion, but the presence of a theatre on the premises turns each pub into a true destination, a home for shared experiences among strangers, for self-expression, conversation, storytelling, debate, entertainment, and the celebration and promotion of creative talent.
The Off West End and fringe theatre scene in Islington is thriving, partly fueled by the patronage of local community audiences. Here’s our quick guide to Islington’s pub theatres:
The King’s Head Theatre on Upper Street was founded in 1970 by Dan Crawford. It is reputed to be one of the first pub theatres in London. The theatre’s current Artistic Director, Adam Spreadbury-Maher, presides over a rotating schedule of new writing, revivals, ‘accessible’ opera, cabaret and musicals.
Another addition to London’s fringe theatre scene, this venue near Angel was founded in 1979 and has been admitting theatregoers ever since. With multiple hits transferring to the West End, the Old Red Lion Theatre is somewhere to go if you want to see new and emerging actors at work, and innovative reinventions of well-known play
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Stand-up comedy takes centre stage in this dog-friendly neighbourhood pub in north London. The theatre upstairs is a cosy space, but that hasn’t impacted the venue’s ability to stage larger-than-life theatre productions and comedy shows.
The mix of entertainment on offer at the Rosemary Branch Theatre is eclectic and wide-ranging. Housed in a former music hall, these days a gastro pub occupies the downstairs and a studio theatre the upstairs. From poetry performance and ‘live literature’ to comedy, clown acts, improvisation, interactive theatre, opera, dance and regular scratch nights, if you want a pleasingly challenging – and often uproariously funny – evening, head here.
Billed as ‘the little theatre with BIG ideas’, the Hope and Anchor Pub plays host to this 50-seat theatre. Staging musicals and revivals of classic plays, there is always an emphasis on big ideas, big productions, and working with dynamic theatre companies.
But theatre in Islington doesn’t begin and end with small studio spaces above pubs. Non-pub theatres in Islington include the Almeida Theatre, arguably Islington’s leading theatre, the Pleasance Theatre, and The Little Angel Theatre, primarily a puppet theatre.