Years ago, I did some filming with that wonderful actor Ronald Fraser. Ronnie is probably best known for appearances in the films ‘Wild Geese’, ‘Scandal’ and ‘The Killing of Sister George’, as well as innumerable television roles. He was one of those chaps who could make you smile no matter how you felt. He described himself as a ‘decaying old thing, resembling a porcupine’. He also loved a drink and often caroused with the likes of Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. He could invariably be found propping up the bar in his local ‘The Haverstock Arms’. The management of the hostelry have even put up a plaque remembering the ‘incorrigible Ronnie’. We got talking about alcohol and the conversation came around to Ronnie’s many drink driving convictions. In his rich and slightly sibilant voice he said to me, “I think the authorities have been a little harsh on me Richard. Who could mind a little revelry on the roads of our Kingdom?”
Today, I know, those sentiments would be frowned upon. But the relationship between the ‘Demon drink’ and the theatre has always been a closely symbiotic one. Most theatre goers have a story of seeing a show in the West End and then ordering an interval drink. What they describe could be a macabre and nightmarish vision as imagined in the drawings of Hieronymus Bosch. Firstly, they are horrified by the price of the ticket: “A hundred pounds for a seat at the back of the stalls, which was not only uncomfortable, it had no room for my knees!” Then they are confronted with the interval bar. I’m pretty certain Dante would have embraced his Inferno rather than face the interval bar. That is if they can get served. The interval bar rarely has enough bar staff. So, by elbowing, kneeing and kicking their fellow patrons to the ground, to get to the front, they are then offered warm shoddy Chardonnay or **** poor Pinot Grigio. The cost of this sets them back the equivalent of buying a small terrace of cottages ‘in the Powerhouse of the North’ (I exaggerate - but only a little). Then just as they begin sipping their tepid offering they are herded back by the ushers for the second half.
And this is where I think LONDON PUB THEATRES score so heavily over a West End experience.
Take for instance Fulham’s The Finborough Arms. Tickets are generally priced between £14 and £16 pounds. The seating is always ‘good to fair’, as the Shipping forecasters might say. The actors are literally meters away (or yards, if you’re still working in pounds and ounces) which adds to the intimacy enormously. The Dionysian offering is quite outstanding. (Interesting that the Greek God Dionysus was both the patron of the harvest of the vine and the theatre.) The Finborough has a commercial relationship with that wonderful Craft brewer and distiller Adnams. Adnam’s tagline is ‘Beers from the Coast’. So, it is well worth trying a glass of draft ‘Fat Sprat’ or a Gin and Tonic (the complex botanicals have made this a previous winner of the ‘Best Gin in the World’.) But if neither take your fancy why not ask the bar person for a Danish bottle of Tool, which has the rather catchy name of, ‘Fuck Art this is Architecture’. So, as Michael Billington has said in the Guardian, ‘one looks to the Finborough to come up with some of the most compelling plays in London’, as well as some of the most compelling imbibitions that Bacchus has to offer.
This picture is duplicated in so many of the LONDON PUB THEATRES ...
The White Bear Theatre in Kennington has as its Artistic Director Michael Kingsbury. Kingsbury is a man of enormous energy and great prescience. He has encouraged or developed a number of very special theatre makers including Joe Penhall, Vicky Featherstone and Torben Betts. So not only is the theatre upstairs thriving the Young’s pub downstairs is presenting sustenance of the highest order. I’m told the braised pork cheeks, black pudding and Beauvale blue dumplings are a speciality not to be missed. DH Lawrence’s favourite evidently. (I wished I’d asked if DH was sampling in situ). There is a ten percent discount for theatre goers.
The Brockley Jack Pub theatre in South East London is run by Kate Bannister and Karl Swinyard. It seems to have won every award going, including the most welcoming theatre off the west end for the last three years. But most importantly for the gourmet - and for this article - it is the current holder of that prestigious award ‘The Best theatre foodie experience’. The Brockley Jack is a Green King pub. The chefs pride themselves on creating the most delicious dishes. If you’re ever visiting on a Sunday, the roasts are utterly superb. I have had the topside of beef with all the trimmings and you really can’t choose much better.
The Hope and Anchor Pub theatre in Islington first became famous as a rock venue. Amongst the many high-profile bands to have appeared here include: U2, Dire straits, The Clash, Madness and the Pogues. The theatre itself was taken over by that extraordinarily brilliant award winning Artistic Director Mathew Parker in 2014. Parker has energised the space with his innovative staging of both new work and the classics. The Classic Fish and Chips served with lemon, Tartare sauce and triple cooked chips is astonishgly good. Do try and have this after the show, because often the Actors come down to the bar and tell theatrical anecdotes at the top of their voices. If you’re into that sort of thing it is tremendous fun.
The Olivier award winning Theatre 503 in Battersea is a new writing powerhouse. Last year I was privileged to see Andrew Thompson’s ‘In Event of Moone Disaster’ at the theatre. This was a play that garnered the most brilliant of reviews and has placed its writer in the highest of theatrical pantheons. Downstairs is the equally well respected Latchmere pub. Everything focuses on the home-grown and handcrafted. The Scotch Eggs are to die for. Couple this with a glass of Sambrook’s ‘Wandle’ or the London Beer Factory’s ‘Chelsea Blonde’ and you’ll think you’ve gone to heaven. It was in the Latchmere that the wonderful character actor Timothy Bateson (the very first Lucky in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’) recounted to me the story of appearing in a play called ‘Brouhaha’ starring Peter Sellers. Sellers had gone to a party and come to the theatre completely ‘sloshed’. One of his first appearances was in a Waltz scene. He manhandled his rather demure fellow artist across the stage and then danced into the Orchestra pit. The audience thought it all part of the action and roared with laughter. Fortunately, Sellers was only bruised but vowed never to do another stage play again. A vow he kept to.
I could wax lyrical about the provender and victuals of LONDON PUB THEATRES for a long time - if only my Editor would let me. Suffice to say do try the superb offerings at the Hen and Chickens, Bread and Roses or the King’s Head amongst many others. I really don’t think you will be disappointed.
And if you are ever caught on Clapham Common, late at night, as was one of our eminent Politicians, “watching Badgers”, I would think it a lot safer supping a glass or two of Badgers at the Old Red Lion Pub theatre in Islington.
All Rights Reserved: London Pub Theatres Magazine 28 March 2017