Pub theatre

The Guardian recently ran an article about the resurgence of pub theatre, demonstrating that once again our author is well-ahead of the curve (in some areas, in others he can’t even find the curve and is uncertain whether one even exists).  I have been an habitué of pub theatres for more than 4 years now.  [Is it just me, or do any other (male or equivalent) readers feel cheated when typing (or writing) a French adjective formed from a past participle that they cannot correctly add the second ‘e’ for feminine agreement?]

What is not to love?  The title clearly illustrates the two key attributes for any potential visitor: there is a theatre “in” (or usually above) a pub!  Not only that, but it is usually a small, intimate theatre producing new writing and the pub is generally a good one with a fine range of well-kept cask ales.

The Guardian article included a production still (look at me, using industry jargon!) from the play that, in many ways, started it all.  It was a shot from Luke Owen‘s Unscorched which was the first time I visited the Finborough Theatre (a place where I am now often recognised by the team), was almost my first visit to a pub theatre and was the play which started my obsession with new writing in the theatre.  Since that day, my visits to the West End have declined to zero and my theatre-going has become increasingly dominated by new plays.  My attendance of the classics has become limited to those staged by the Nuffield Theatre – but a short walk or bus-ride from my door – or at the cinema via NT Live (similarly physically proximate).  This switch has also had the benefit of making my theatre-going budget stretch a lot further.

My visits to pub theatre – which are mostly in London (though I am tempted to try and set one up myself nearer to home) – have been somewhat restricted by the pain of getting to them from Southampton (and more significantly getting home again) by public transport.  They tend to be located away from the centre of London on underground lines not served from Waterloo.  However, on the Sunday before last I made a major transport breakthrough.  I discovered that, via the magic of the Overground, I can be delivered from Clapham Junction via a very frequent service to West Brompton in less than 10 minutes.  From there it is but a short walk to the Finborough.  This knocks 45-60 minutes off my previous route via Waterloo and the Jubilee and District Lines and saves me nearly a fiver on my train ticket!  This same little arc of the Overground also takes in Theatre 503 (another pub theatre) and the Bush Theatre (not in a pub, but still a small theatre producing new writing).  I also have the feeling that the Overground is largely unknown to tourists, which eliminates a whole range of frustrations which plague its subterranean sibling.  All hail the London Overground!  Your rolling stock was not named Capitalstar in vain!

Using this new knowledge, I found myself in the Finborough Arms enjoying a very fine pint of Luppol (not a new high-performance lubricant for your engine, but an unfiltered ale by Clouded Minds brewery) a mere 90 minutes after leaving Southampton Central.  I then enjoyed the drama of Late Company by the ridiculously young and talented Jordan Tannahill (he was 23 when he wrote it, and still hasn’t reached 30) another stunning Canadian play brought across the Atlantic by the Finborough team.  If the opportunity arises, go see Late Company – it is an uncomfortable experience at times, but is wonderful, thoughtful writing.  I then wended my way home via Theatre 503 and the excellent Sharp Teeth, starring inter alia The Greeners and Ben Norris.

Sharp Teeth is a cross-genre night taking in music and spoken word along the way which is usually resident in Bristol, but this was its first outing in London.  Bristol is, in theory, closer and easier to get to than London – but the operators of our rail companies find it inconceivable that the resident of a provisional UK city should wish to visit a nearby provincial city for an evening of fun.  Whether it be Salisbury, Bath, Chichester, Brighton or Bristol the last train back to Southampton is cunningly timed to ensure that any visit to the theatre (or similar cultural activity) will cause you to miss it.  Is ATOC in the pocket of big B&B?  Or is it just that the denizens of Southampton have a particularly lairy reputation?

Returning to Late Company, this is the fourth stunning play by a Canadian playwright I have seen in the last couple of years: two at the Finborough (the other being Proud by Michael Healey) and two at the Nuffield Theatre.  This latter pair were performed by the Nuffield Youth Theatre, Girls like that and Consensual, both written by Evan Placey.  These were both stunningly good productions but Consensual, in particular, never made you think about the word “youth” in “youth theatre”.  For my money (and as paying audience, it was my money), it could stand with any professional production I’ve seen in recent years.  The ambition of the NYT over recent years has been extraordinary.  I’d never been to youth theatre before I moved to Southampton and only went the first time as I had a free ticket and figured “how bad can it be?”.  I now book early for all their productions to make sure I get a seat: the performances are always worth seeing and they can tackle repertoire which the main theatre would struggle to programme economically.

I fear this post has wandered from its original theme of pub theatre, as many members of the NYT could not be legally served in a pub, but I like to feel there is a (tenuous) thread leading the reader through my rant: if not, can we agree to call it Joycean?  It is also becoming increasingly clear that if I am forced to flee this country as an economic migrant, Canada is looking an increasingly attractive option.  So I like to think we’ve all learned something today.

Fresh Air

This Saturday marked my first visit to the theatre in 2014 – more than a month since my last visit so I have no idea how I managed going cold turkey like that (though some actual cold turkey may have been involved).  The gap was occasioned largely by the desperate unreliability and (hopefully associated) engineering works on the railways rendering a trip to London slightly more time-consuming than one to New York.

I resumed exactly where I left off, at the Bush Theatre.  My last visit of 2013 was to see Jumpers for Goalposts by Tom Ellis which was truly excellent.  I have rarely laughed so much at the theatre, but it was also moving and tackled proper human stories.  Even better, it did all of this in a Hull accent (or so I believe, the accents may have wandered more widely around the East Riding for all I know) which I feel is rather neglected on the stage (except, presumably, in Hull).  As has become my wont with good plays at “fringe” venues I bought the play-text – which such venues tend to offer in lieu of a programme (and for much the same price) and which strikes me as a much better deal – which does provide a way of “keeping” a play which is otherwise an ephemeral experience (as DVDs of such plays have yet to become widely available – though I for one would buy them if they were).

For those who might (quite reasonably) wonder as to my credentials as a theatre critic, I would point out that my positive response to JfG was shared by several of the broadsheets (including one that included it in their top 10 of 2013) and one Gary Lineker who shared audience duties with me on the night (and who looks disgracefully youthful even at close range).

This time I saw Ciphers by Dawn King (a previous winner of the Papatango prize – always a sign of quality) which was a decent thriller and very well acted.  However, it was quite eclipsed by my evening’s viewing: The Body of an American by Dan O’Brien.   This was at the Gate Theatre, which those studying this blog for the associated degree will remember was the venue of one of my first theatre visits: when there was still some hope of managing my condition.  The Gate puts on new (or newish) international plays (i.e. those written by Johnny or Janey Foreigner).  I felt slightly guilty about not having been more often and one of the actors (half of the total, in fact) was Damien Molony who has yet to appear in a duff play (and did introduce me to 10 Greek Street), so I thought I’d take a punt.  Rather pleasingly, the cost of both plays added together was less than my return rail ticket to London – which makes it much easier to be experimental.  This could be considered a savage indictment on rail fares in this country (and to an extent it is), but I was on a super-off peak Travelcard, with a third off from my Network Card, so my rail fare was pretty decent value.  No, in fact it is quite possible to see decent theatre very economically – my ticket at the Gate cost no more than a visit to my local multiplex – and it doesn’t have to become an addiction, so give it a try!

Anyway, back to The Body of an American: before going I knew it was about a war correspondent and would contain graphic images of the effects of war – so not an obvious source of a fun night out.  There are some very visceral images and the meaning of the title becomes apparent fairly early on, but the play was quite stunning with the two actors playing a significant number of parts in a wide range of accents with only two (cheap) chairs and a lot of shredded paper snow for props/set.  In some ways it is a play about itself, and I love a bit of recursion (one of my favourite elements of my Maths degree), but despite what could easily have become rather a confusing structure in lesser hands it was never anything less than lucid and often emotionally powerful.  Whilst I loved the play, I didn’t pick up a play-text as the voices in my head haven’t the slightest chance of doing the play justice (that needed a tour-de-force from Messrs Gaminara and Molony) – however, I think I will have physical reminders of the play for some time yet in the form of little fragments of paper snow, despite the best attempts of the Gate to spare us (the poor actors and their loved ones must be finding paper snow everywhere).  Today’s title is the only line from the play I can remember, perhaps because it was used several times.  Interestingly, despite the subject matter, that night delivered my best night’s sleep of 2014 so far.

I think there might be a theme developing here – I seem to like shortish plays in a small fringe venue with a somewhat harrowing subject matter, see the excellent Unscorched as another example.  Jumpers for Goalposts while it mostly lacked harrowing subject matter, but did still tackle some very serious issues.  I do begin to worry that I may suffer from some sort of psychopathy – though so far this only seems to manifest at the theatre.  If the blog suddenly dries up, it may be because the men (or women) in white coats have finally come for me – still, I believe Dartmoor does have a certain wild beauty and padded walls would cut down on my self-harming.   Before you panic about my mental health and plan to stage an intervention (or call social services), this self-harm is caused by impacts with solid objects like door frames, tables etc as I fail to successfully navigate round them (so, I can blame no-one other than the self for such harm) and nothing more sinister (or, indeed, dexter).

Bit’ a Schubert. [The] guy was a dude.

It is a little more than two years ago that I started going to the theatre regularly, some might say obsessively.  Over time, I have moved from classics and comedies and, indeed, the intersection of the two (I’ll leave readers to construct their own Venn diagram), into darker territory.  I do begin to wonder if I may (unbeknownst to myself) be a comic book hero, as they all seem to be heading in the same direction – with Batman very much in the vanguard.

The first theatrical experience I can remember was a somewhat terrifying pantomime in Canterbury – this wasn’t (so far as I can recall) a bunch of current pop hints linked together by someone off of Emmerdale as tends to be the current vogue – with a very angry (and frightening) Christmas pudding as the villain (or so I remember, but this may not be 100% accurate as it was a long time ago and I was a lot younger).  Despite this trauma, I have not developed any sort of phobia about plum duff in later life (though I suppose there is still time).

My first “adult” experiences of theatre were visiting the Oxford Playhouse when at university.   I can still remember a rather young Helena Bonham-Carter playing a somewhat unconvincing Ariel in a student version of the Tempest, a very funny melodrama entitled Black Eyed Susan and an amazing performance of Oklahoma! by the local operatic society (for the avoidance of doubt, caused by the limits of English punctuation, HB-C as Ariel appeared in only one of these performances).  On one of my visits back to my alma mater over the summer, I revisited the Playhouse to see Dunsinane – a sort of “what happened next?” for Macbeth.  The play was excellent, but the Playhouse interior was entirely unrecognisable from my student days (down, I think, to refurbishment rather than amnesia).

But, enough of the nostalgia already, yesterday I took the train up to London for an afternoon and evening of quite dark theatre (though not without its laughs), with both plays owing something to the topic of child abuse.  My first was in the West End: a place I usually avoid as a result of the high prices, poor sightlines and poor quality ice cream offerings.  However, Mojo was very well reviewed, boasted a stellar cast (half of which I had previously seen on stage) and a famous auteur.  The play was excellent, very funny at times and at others pitch black.  The cast were brilliant – and must be exhausted playing eight shows a week as it is fairly physical play and has a lot of words, often spoken very quickly and at volume (my voice wouldn’t survive a single performance in at least 4 of the 6 roles).  Daniel Mays, in particular, must have had quite the vocal training to survive his performance.  I am still amazed when I see actors that I have seen before – whether on stage or screen – how unlike their previous roles they are (well, except Sean Connery – but I’ve never seen him on the stage).  I realise this is a fairly critical part of the job, but it remains somehow magical to me.

As seems fairly common with my theatrical “picks”, we do see quite a lot of the cast and so I can say that stage acting does seem to keep the weight off quite effectively (at least for those in their 20s).  I wonder if Sport England or the Department for Health should be promoting Amateur Dramatics more assiduously to tackle the obesity crisis?

The play also provided a celebrity spotting moment, as at half-time I discovered the elderly head which very occasionally blocked my view of part of the stage, belonged to Peter Bowles.

After pit stops at Foyles and 10 Greek Street, I headed to the Finborough Theatre.  This is a place I’ve been planning to visit for ages, but somehow never managed to do until yesterday.  Their website warns you to allow plenty of time for your journey as latecomers are not admitted (and I could see why, as to reach my seat I had to cross the “stage”) and they were right – the Piccadilly line was jiggered and I had to find an alternative route to Earls Court (hiking at speed to Westminster followed by the District Line).  The Finborough is on the top (I think – I didn’t count the stairs and compare against the height of the building – pure laziness I’ll freely admit) floor of what was once a pub, but is now a wine bar, and is a very intimate venue – which I much prefer.  The whole theatre – stage and “auditorium” was little (if any) larger than my lounge – so you are definitely close to the action.

The play Unscorched was about a man who starts a job requiring him to view on-line child pornography as part of the effort to shut-down the websites, rescue the children and prosecute those involved.  It follows how this affects him over a three month period.  This sounds awful, but the play was incredible – funny at times, moving, thought-provoking and one of those that will stick with me.  The two main actors Ronan Raftery and John Hodgkinson were both excellent and there was great support from the rest of the cast.  I think it might be the best play I have seen yet – and I have seen quite a few, all good and many really excellent.  It was also less than one third of the price of Mojo: I really don’t know how they get the economics to work (and I do worry about such things).  The staging was also very clever which may have helped, requiring little more than some carpentry, some carpet tiles and a little ironmongery (hinges et al).  I caught the final performance, and I’m pretty sure held the door open on the way downstairs for the playwright – Luke Owen (who was irritatingly youthful).  It won a prize (judged I’m sure by those far more qualified than I) – the Papa Tango prize.  This is a fairly new prize for new writers and its first winner was Dominic Mitchell, who later wrote In the Flesh which has already been praised on this very blog.  I shall have to keep a very careful eye out for the winner in 2014 as the Papa Tango panel and I seem have some serious commonality in taste.

Choosing new, or newish, plays with edgier content but that are either well-reviewed or have potentially interesting content really seems to be paying off for me.  This is not something the me of even three years ago would ever have expected to say (or even type) – I’d always assumed that new plays were a form of penance for the audience (and perhaps some are and I’ve been lucky to miss them).

The day held only two disappointments: (i) Southwest Trains – of which more another time and (ii) the shortage of women – two plays, eleven actors and only one who could boast a pair of X chromosomes.

Oh, the title you ask: that is a direct quite from Unscorched and is almost the last line of the play.  Rarely has a truer phrase been spoken on stage!