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Life beyond the West End…

I know I am forever complaining, or at least pointing out, that there simply aren’t enough nights in the week to see everything that the theatre has to offer in London - never mind the rest of the country. It’s a nice problem to have, of course, and far beyond the fixed, mostly static auditoria of the West End (though even these have been known to have shape-shifting possibilities, as when the Royal Court took over the Ambassadors a few years ago and turned it into a two-studio space), it’s also a constantly changing environment, or sometimes series of them.

It’s not just that enterprising little theatres like the Cock Tavern will suddenly spring up and put themselves on the map (and looking through Time Out’s listings, I see a couple of new theatres in the fringe section that I’ve not even heard of, the Colour House Theatre in SW19 or the Hot Tap Theatre in SE14, that may yet make a mark). This sector, not dependent on public funding but merely the enthusiasm, ambition and talent of its creators, seems to be as resilient and unstoppable as ever.

It’s also that there seems to be an almost unquenchable appetite nowadays for “found spaces” and pop-up theatre that sets up home in places from Waterloo Station (where the old Eurostar terminal has been turned into the Waterloo Station Theatre for a lavish staging of The Railway Children, complete with working steam train) to You Me Bum Bum Train’s colonisation of an old office building in Bethnal Green, or LIFT’s Hotel Medea, for which access is by boat only that departs from the 02 Arena’s North Greenwich pier at 11pm - and returns at 5.30am. (A step too far for me, I’m afraid, but not for my indefatigable friend Blanche Marvin, who at 85 has a tenacity that far eclipses mine, and spent Saturday night into Sunday morning there).

As Vanessa Thorpe recently asked in a Guardian blog, with so much artistic enterprise going on this summer inside pop-up venue and found spaces, “an inevitable question is being asked: what is the point of a theatre anyway? If a show really can gain creatively from being put on inside a warehouse in east London or in a railway tunnel behind the South Bank (to say nothing of performances staged on a genuine railway platform), then where does this leave those people who are trying to build the fixed auditoria of the future, say, in Stratford-upon-Avon? According to some, a purpose-built venue, equipped with permanent toilets and a comfortable cafe, is becoming a bit of a liability. How very predictable and unadventurous it is to trip along to an established theatre or arts centre, when you might instead spend the evening ricocheting around the interior of a drafty multi-storey car park in order to glimpse scenes from a site-specific tour de force.”

It’s partly, of course, the Edinburgh Fringe writ large - theatre makers, frozen out of access to the established venues, are simply creating their own spaces and own worlds. It also seems to appeal to audiences, constantly in search of novelty. As one commentator perceptively replies to Thorpe’s blog, “It seems to me that the rise of work outside the confines of a theatre building is a way of engaging new audiences without the incentives of schemes like A Night Less Ordinary - funding for which has expectantly been cut, although it takes a lot of stamina to stand and watch the action as well as follow it around an unconventional site. Site specific work appeals to generations of theatre goers that hate the idea of sitting still for a performance, it can engage them in ways which an auditorium wouldn’t. However the conventional theatre set up should not be forgotten. In the case of some theatre companies who, rather than producing new work, are producing existing plays in new spaces and new ways they should be careful that they are not simply working outside theatre for the sake of it.” The commentator concludes, “I believe that they are in some way a rebellion at a time of difficulty and funding cuts within the arts.”

In which case we can expect a lot more of this kind of work and environment in the near future. But the “old” fringe still has its place, and there’s still plenty to discover. Just the other day, I paid my first-ever visit to the long-established Tabard Theatre on Turnham Green. No relation to the columnist of the same name that appears in the pages of The Stage with snippets of theatrical gossip and speculation, I found a rare thing here: a fringe theatre that is not only comfortably equipped with real theatre seating, but also a fully raked auditorium that puts many West End sightlines to shame. And best of all, in Andrew Keates’s terrific staging of Martin Sherman’s Bent, first seen at the Landor earlier this year, here’s a production of commitment and real talent, too, that also repaid my return visit to it.

In fact it’s an ongoing miracle of the depth and breadth of London theatre just how much amazing talent will work in places as small as this, the Landor or Finborough. Tonight I’m back at the Landor, as it happens, for the opening of Smokey Joe’s Cafe that features Over the Rainbow semi-finalist Steph Fearon; and on Friday I was at the Finborough for the premiere of Peter Nichols’s Lingua Franca that had a West End worthy cast, including such stage veterans as Rula Lenska, Ian Gelder and Abigail McKern, and a younger generation of sterling actors like Chris New, Nathalie Walter and Charlotte Randle.

It’s a hothouse theatre in every sense; it has long been my lottery dream wish that if I ever hit the jackpot, I’d donate the money to install air-conditioning, and it turns out I’m far from alone. Artistic director Neil McPherson told me on Friday that many actors who have worked there have said exactly the same thing; but instead of dreaming of improbable rescue, the Finborough are at last taking proactive steps to do something about it after a regular audience member got the funding ball rolling by offering the first £6,000. Now the collection buckets are out at every performance for an air-conditioning appeal; regular fringegoers may be reminded of the late, great Dan Crawford’s endless leaking roof appeal at the King’s Head, but I’m sure that gasping audiences leaving the Finborough will fill those buckets far quicker.

2 Comments

Hats off to the Finborough and Neil McPherson - and to Peter Nichols in his 83rd year. Regarding pop-up venues well at least these exciting pioneers don't have to deal with the state-subsidised middle-men who, as Richard Eyre pointed out in The Guardian (in 2001), take up to 80% of the taxpayers' involuntary contribution and benefit from the state-subsidised PR machine big time. I seriously recommend the cloning of Lyn Barber.

Each to his own - but I much prefer sitting down in a theatre space (even if it's small & has no air conditioning).

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