The first time I met John, I had an impression of a grey haired chatty person, with a modulated voice, both engaging and charming. This time he has morphed into a towering man whose voice is rather flat. Might this have something to do with the fact that he had just completed directing Anything Goes? The nominations and excellent reviews are in, he must be feeling a little lighter, he must be floating in the stratosphere. Nevertheless, he is still easy to draw out.
John is very interested in history and preserving the nature of places. He and his wife Katie, had lived in the area for a long time before they decided to look for a suitable home for their own venture in the mid-90s. John explains:
“We looked at a disused opera house in Crouch End which is now a fitness club, a disused Victorian theatre in Portobello Road, Notting Hill being used as furniture shop, and a derelict building in Kentish town, now offices, but kept coming back to the Gatehouse. Finally it became available. The building had a lovely history …it started life as a Victorian music hall, and we had found somewhere close to where we live and we like the area. I quite like preserving old buildings, and hate to see them knocked down especially if they are of historical value.”
John really wanted to carry on a tradition of performances in the space, “It would be better than trying to convert an office building. There’s something in the air, something in the atmosphere which tells you it will make a good performance space. I think the whole concept of pub theatres is wonderful. Pubs are an essential part of the English psyche and to combine the theatre and the pub as they did in Victorian times is wonderful. It’s great to be able to watch a show and get a drink at the interval and then use the pub afterward to meet your friends and even the cast. There’s always an intimate atmosphere between audience and cast.”
John and Katie formed their in-house company Ovation in 1985. Apart from numerous productions at Upstairs at the Gatehouse (since 1997), they have had successful shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival including Black Comedy (1996) Forever Plaid (1999 followed by a National Tour), Veronique – A Life Long Cult (2001), Jim Bowen’s You Can’t Beat a Bit of Bully (2005, 2007, 2008 and 2010) and There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis (2015).
In the early days, the 80s and 90s they produced lots of corporate shows, company conferences and product launches. These were devised shows not for the public but to employees, wholesalers, retailers and trade dealers. It was called 'industrial theatre' and most of those involved had a background in theatre or music. Currently, Ovation produce one musical and one play each year. The rest of the programme at The Gatehouse is provided by visiting companies.
John has an artistic policy which is different to many pub theatres. “Our theatre does not push boundaries, it’s not known for new writing and that is a very conscious decision … we are a theatre which is known for staging revivals. We have touring companies, often producing revivals. Many of our own shows are titles that have only just finished in the West End”. Much of the time it is not possible to get the rights while a show is on elsewhere so John tries “to be first to produce a show when it has finished its West End run.” They were the first company to produce Avenue Q on the fringe and, apart from the tour, the first company to produce Buddy in a small scale theatre.
John does concede that they have one or two pieces of new writing a year, if something really appeals. However, most of the programme is filled by established writers. Last year they staged two Shakespeare plays and this year the schedule includes Chekhov and Dostoevsky. The only time they diverge from main stream is for the Camden Fringe Festival when they open up the venue to new writing. John explains: “Fringe festivals, by their very nature, encourage young new diverse talent in acting, producing and writing. Nice opportunity for us to show a little diversity in our programme.”
We are sat in the kitchen and as John is chatting, people keep popping in and out. Katie makes an appearance, and then several cast members, “I’m being interviewed” John proudly announces. Subsequently more cast members appear, curious to witness this phenomenon. I recognize a couple of them and cannot resist telling them how fabulous they are in Anything Goes.
John and Katie love to encourage young theatre practitioners, from producers to stage managers right across the board. It can often be their first engagement. Ovation does not have the financial resources to pay more than a nominal sum plus a profit share but there are other benefits. John says: “Some people in the industry are criticised for not rewarding the cast, musicians, stage managers and technicians enough but fringe is not a job for life. They spend only a short time on the fringe and there are other rewards. It’s a training ground. Most people think it’s just for actors but we try to encourage all practitioners; lighting, set, and costume designers, stage managers, sound and lighting technicians. Fringe is hugely important for people to develop their skills.”
I am left with an impression that Upstairs at the Gatehouse is quite buzzy, all sorts of planning for next year is happening right now. John tells me that they need a bit of technical work in the theatre, and they are quite involved in the local community so sometimes use it for meetings. John is head of the Local Business Association whilst both Katie and he are involved in a charity called The Lord’s Taverners (Katie is a council member of The Lady Taverners).
John is also chairman of SIT (Society of Independent Theatres). He explains: “SIT brings together a diverse group of people. Most West End theatres are run by corporate organisations, they are commercial, financially driven and all aim to make a financial profit because, as well as putting on theatre, they are run along commercial lines. Some fringe venues are subsidised, some are registered charities, most are independent. One of the things SIT does really well is to put us in touch with each other. A good example is a SIT member contacting us about some almost new seating that was looking for a home; so, we now have the same seating as the Brockley Jack Theatre. A big thanks to them for getting in touch and helping us to find new seating.”
John himself trained at LAMDA on their technical course studying to be stage manager. John recalls: “It was in the days when you also had to act, we were called acting ASMs. I realised early on that’s not where I was going to be successful. However, a different branch of the entertainment industry came calling and I spent ten years in the Cruise industry. That’s where I started directing and producing. Nowadays, the shows are created on land by huge production companies and then taken on board. When I was working on the ships, we had to do it ourselves.”
I remember John at the press night, expansively directing people to their seats. The huge executive seats at the back were reserved, so I enquired whether I may sit there and was given an emphatic “no”, from John, “but you may sit anywhere else in the auditorium”. Patrons trump reviewers. There’s a hierarchy here, straight out of cruise culture, mildly unflattering, but impossible to take offence because John is so doing a job well.
Ovation are most famous for producing large scale musicals on a relatively small stage. They have been praised for staging musicals such as Crazy for You, High Society, Singin’ in the Rain. Although the Gatehouse is probably the largest of the pub theatres these musicals are usually seen in auditoriums that seat 500 to 2000 with a stage 20 metres wide. John recalls that “when we did Singin’ in the Rain we flooded the stage each evening”. The popularity of this show was reflected in audience capacity of 98.4 % which was their highest selling show ever. John really likes the old-fashioned musicals by the likes of Cole Porter and the Gershwins.
The theatre is run by three people and everyone else is brought in on free-lance basis. Generally, he and Katie share everything and decisions are joint decisions. John adds: “It seems to have worked very well for 40 years, she’s very much the producer and I direct. We don’t need to switch off, because we enjoy very much what we do. We met on the Cunard liner QE2 and when we do get time for a break we ‘ll take a cruise, but nowadays as passengers!”
It really is a theatrical family with their two daughters also in the business. Racky is a director and choreographer, who, last year had two shows in the West End including American Idiot and is currently rehearsing for a national tour of Thoroughly Modern Milly. Jessica is a ‘wig mistress’ currently on Strictly Ballroom at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and last year was Head of Wigs on Guys and Dolls in the West End.
Another feature of press night is the friendliness of John and Katie, they really get to know their audiences. John says: “We think at least sixty per cent live within a three-mile radius of us. Highgate itself is populated by the more mature, our audiences are not young! It’s the nature of Highgate, Hampstead, Finchley. The average age of the audience is quite high. At a fringe theatre in Camden for instance, they would have an audience with an average age that is half of ours.”
And the average ethnicity? “We do have a large Jewish population in North London. Old fashioned musicals were mainly written by Jewish composers – the Gershwins, Irving Berlin. The only major non-Jewish writer of that era is Cole Porter. Two or three shows a year are primarily aimed at our Jewish audience. It’s reflected in the type of material but it’s not exclusively Jewish. We’re frequent visitors to New York, Katie and I love the city and we are sometimes influenced by New York/Jewish audiences who just love the theatre. One of our biggest audience groups are friends and fellow actors of the casts. This is especially the case with young actors who have just graduated and their fellow ex-graduates come to see them in their first job”.
Finally, I have John flummoxed when I ask him to talk about his favourite musical. “That’s a very hard question, I don’t have a favourite. High on the list would be the stage adaptation I wrote of a 1960 movie called The Young Ones, which is a lot of fun. The first musical we ever produced at The Gatehouse was Forever Plaid, a long running off Broadway show. I saw it in the States fell in love with it and we’ve now done it three times here. A ‘jukebox show’ with music from the late 50s and early 60s – it’s still one of my favourites. Another is Return to the Forbidden Planet written by Bob Carlton. It’s also a ‘jukebox show’ and it won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical (1989/90), much to the horror of many people in the industry.”
What is John proudest of achieving? “Proudest?” He considers how to sum it up “I’m proudest of establishing, with Katie, a brand-new fringe space 20 years ago, which has gone from strength to strength, it’s still very vibrant and commercially successful.”
Long may it continue.
John PLews was chatting with Heather Jeffery, Editor of LPT magazine
THE GATEHOUSE (@GatehouseLondon)
Upstairs at the Gatehouse
Highgate Village, London N6 4BD
A multi-award winning Theatre with a varied programme of drama, musicals and fringe theatre productions. Billed as “One of London’s most reliable fringe musical theatre venues” by Time Out, it also hosts some of the best drama companies on the circuit whilst staging radical new theatre during the Camden Fringe Festival in August every year.
The Gatehouse is almost certainly the largest of the London Pub Theatres. It boasts extremely comfortable seating for up to 140 people with excellent sight lines, a dedicated upstairs area for the lighting and sound desks, an adaptable playing area and great technical capability.
Mainly revivals of dramas, and musicals, for which they have received much critical acclaim. They rarely stage new writing, but make an exception when The Gatehouse is a venue within The Camden Fringe Festival.
The in-house company, Ovation, produces one drama and one musical per year and has been described as one of the best fringe theatre companies in London. The rest of the programme is provided by visiting companies.
Likely to be the oldest pub in Highgate, it is believed that there has been a licensed premises on the site since 1337. The mock-Tudor exterior only dates back to 1905, but the interior has many of the original features from the 1800s. There are many nooks and crannies with an excellent open fire (lit throughout the cold months). Food here is Spanish in flavour and is quite simply delicious. The staff are hard-working, friendly and help create a buzzy atmosphere.
Car: Free parking after Noon in residents parking bays and pay and display bays. Parking permitted on single yellow lines after 6.30pm on weekdays and all day on weekends (please check the roadside signs). The small space immediately outside the theatre is for loading and unloading ONLY.
You can get involved by becoming a Patron or an Angel. The Patrons helped start the theatre. There is always room for new patrons and angels who like what Ovation do and want to support them. Angels pay an annual fee to contribute to day to day running. Patrons receive shares.
Of all the inns and pubs in Highgate, The Gatehouse is probably the oldest. Its nineteenth century owners claimed that there had been a licensed building on the site since 1337. The earliest mention of The Gatehouse in the licensing records is 1670. It was situated right next to the toll gate. To get out of London, a toll had to be paid to whoever owns the land beyond (in this case the Bishop of Middlesex). The road was very wide because in the 18th century it was decreed four roads out of London should be so many yards wide so robbers couldn’t jump out and attack you. The theory was that you could ride down the middle of road, so that if robbers tried to leap out you could spur your horse into action and escape. For ¼ mile you can still see the original highway.
One curious fact about The Gatehouse was that the borough boundary between Middlesex and London ran through the building. At one time the hall was used as a courtroom, a rope divided the sessions to make sure prisoners didn’t escape to another authority’s area. The boundary problem continued as the names changed, most recently with Camden and Haringey sharing the building. In 1993 the border was moved a few feet to allow one licensing authority overall control and The Gatehouse is now the last pub (going North) in Camden.
Notable customers have included illustrator George Cruikshank, author Charles Dickens, poet Lord Byron and infamous highway man Dick Turpin. The Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution’s inaugural meeting took place in the pub on 16th January 1839. At the turn of the century The Gatehouse was famous all over London for its “shilling ordinaries”, gigantic lunches. In 1905 the building was renovated in the mock Tudor style that remains today.
The auditorium that now houses the theatre was opened in 1895 as “a place suitable for balls, Cinderellas and Concerts” and its various uses have included a Victorian Music Hall, a cinema, a Masonic Lodge and a venue for amateur dramatics. In the sixties a jazz and folk club featured amongst others, the Crouch End All Stars and, on one famous occasion, Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkel fame). The first floor auditorium became a full-time theatre in 1997.
All rights reserved
London Pub Theatres Company Limited