With OperaUpClose, producer Adam Spreadbury-Maher and his team perfected the art of pub opera, first at Kilburn’s Cock Tavern and then at Islington’s famous King’s Head, where they continue to produce pocket size productions of operas old and new. Bolstered by a Whatsonstage and Olivier award a couple of years ago, they have now opened a venue in Islington, just up the road from the King’s Head, with the aim of presenting exclusively new theatre writing. With the same team running both the King’s Head and the new Hope Theatre, London’s oldest and newest pub theatres are neatly linked.
They’ve come to an agreement with Equity to overcome the common fringe problem of performers’ wages, guaranteeing that all actors will be paid a negotiated rate. As this will have to come from box office returns, the imperative to sell-out the 50-seater on an ongoing basis will keep them on their toes. It’s a welcome initiative, certainly for actors who are subjected to the usual euphemistic “profit share” arrangement, but also for audiences, as it requires the fringe to up its game across the board. If Spreadbury-Maher can pull it off, the spotlight will turn on all pub venues, certainly as far as finances are concerned.
They have come to an agreement with the brewers at the Hope and Crown in Upper Street (just down from Highbury and Islington tube station), which will help make the venture financially viable, and the name Hope Theatre has a serendipitously optimistic ring to it.
The theatre opened on 7th November with a double bill of plays that did well at this year’s Edinburgh Festival and, before that, were winners of the Stella Wilkie Award, whereby Spreadbury-Maher selected the most promising debuts by young writers from the East 15 Acting School. Sandpits Avenue and The League of St George both show the sort of quality that the new venue aspires to, with bold approaches to contemporary themes while playfully exploring traditional theatre forms.
Nathalie Wain’s Sandpits Avenue eschews a linear narrative for a patchwork of images, threaded together by verse that is as athletic as the recently graduated actors in Dominic Garfield’s fast-moving production. It smacks a bit of student experimentation of several decades ago but clearly shows an acute writing talent, with the action moving back and forth between a demoralized frontline troop in Afghanistan to the quiet backwater of a rural village where the frustrations of those left behind seethe.
Georgia Bliss’s The League of St George takes youthful energy onto a whole other level, with frequent punk-inspired explosions, as the cast pick up guitars and a drum-kit threatens the legal decibel level. It’s a witty and startling look at the sub-culture of late 1970s England, when multiculturalism was taking faltering steps. For the young cast, it must seem like pre-history but for some of us it’s an almost nostalgic wallow in our own youth, although it brings home that, no matter the social difficulties we experience now, things have moved on in the last few decades. It doesn’t shy away from the ugliest side of the times, as a confused gay skinhead struggles with his loyalties to both the firm and his Asian lover. It’s a thrilling and frightening attempt to tackle the complicit nastiness, if not downright evil, that has never gone away but which modern society tends to handle with kid gloves. Bliss’s vigorous script and Shabaneh Razvand’s equally direct production are certainly challenging, with great performances all round.
The next show couldn’t be a greater contrast, a musical about front of house staff called Ushers (you can almost hear the words “a hoot” already). So, a wide range of tastes should be catered for and The Hope Theatre looks set to become a destination for all adventurous theatregoers.