Alex Mullarky writes on her experiences of the old English tradition of pub theatre



Passing through the streets of Sixteenth Century London you could find yourself being swept up into a crowd heading for the local pub. Not, however, for round upon round of drinks (well, at least not solely) but for an afternoon of theatre. Packed into the coach-yard of the inn by an enthusiastic landlord, on a covered balcony if you were lucky or in amongst the rabble at ground level if you weren’t, you’d settle in for a couple of hours of entertainment courtesy of whichever acting troupe was currently passing through the area. Some time later the gates would open and the crowd would stumble out, well-fed, inebriated and with a good dose of quality independent theatre.

Five hundred years later, you’d be surprised how little has changed. Sure, there are real ‘theatres’ now, since the Privy Council took it upon themselves to outlaw theatre within the city walls and dedicated thespians found themselves having to set up shop just outside. Eventually they were allowed back in, but theatres were businesses now with a bit more formality and credibility on their side. For several centuries it appeared the age of the pub theatre had well and truly come to an end; then, in 1970, pub theatre was born again. The King’s Head, Islington, boasts that it is ‘the first pub theatre founded in England since the days of Shakespeare’. It wasn’t long before the idea began to catch on, and now dozens operate within London alone: The New Red Lion, The White Bear Theatre Club and The Lion & Unicorn to name but a few.

 

So what exactly does pub theatre have going for it? Well, if you like to step through the front door and realise you’re already in the audience, order a pint and a slice of Death by Chocolate cake to munch on during the performance, settle down at a table with your friends as far back from the unnervingly-close stage as you can manage – then pub theatre’s for you. If you like prolonged eye contact with the performers, having actors down your drink and pull you on stage to help out, finding that one of the actors sitting beside you with a ukulele during the interval – then yes, pub theatre is for you. It’s intimate, in that the performance is usually taking place within about twenty feet of where you’re sitting. It’s frightening, because at any moment that spotlight could be turned on you (avoid aisle seats). And it’s an absolutely fantastic way to spend an evening.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), as one example, is currently showing at The New Red Lion and will have you doubled over with laughter throughout. You’ll see your fellow audience members dragged onto the stage and humiliated. You’ll watch a rugby match acted out by the protagonists of Shakespeare’s histories, hear the plot of Othello rapped, and see every comedy rolled into one completely ridiculous animation. If you’re heading to London before February, make sure it’s added to your itinerary.

Pub theatre is a fun, involving and innovative method of performance – it’s amazing it was extinct for four centuries.

 

Alex Mullarky

Image credit – dustpuppy