Features Published 11 May 2015

The Sixth Hundred Roar

Tim Foley, playwright and former Old Red Lion barman toasts the theatre-pub on its 600th birthday.
Tim Foley

Back in 2013, I moved to London with my knapsack on a stick to seek my fortunes as a writer. For that first year, the knapsack remained firmly tied on the floor of my shoebox room, whilst the stick became a weapon to bat away Rent, Debt, and all the other monsters of this terrifying city. I was never alone in fighting this battle, but back then I didn’t know this, because Loneliness was the biggest monster of all. It would be my first job in London that would help me get a grasp on this city, giving me friends, money to pay the bills, and the opportunity to get stuck into the world of theatre. I was a barman at The Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel, and on its 600th birthday, I would like to say a few words about that weird and wonderful building.

If you’ve never been to the Old Red Lion before, picture a theatre on stilts, standing over a hallowed pub and reaching out into the evening sky. It is one of those old stacked London buildings that would wobble too much if you tried to make a matchstick model out of it – but it stands there, solidly, on St John’s Street, and it is a firm fixture of everybody’s Islington. People would walk along the street, laugh at the puns on the blackboard outside (that was me), and pop in to get away from the outdoor rush. The building is surprisingly spacious outside, if we look at it vertically. At the very bottom there is a murky cellar, where ales are laid alongside props and posters of shows gone by. This became my part-time hall of residence when I first joined. Above sits the boozer, which is still my favourite place to drink in all of London. Both the bar and her regulars can tell you stories of all the different cities London has been. To call the pub ‘old-fashioned’ sounds detrimental, especially in a city that celebrates how quickly it can reinvent itself, but this drinking den is one of those constants you can rely on. Work can be shit, the weather can be terrible, but slink into the Old Red for a couple of pints and you’ll end up seeing a show, listening to the Irish music, watching the football or just having excellent chat with a new friend.

Of course, it was the theatre on top that captured my imagination – or more specifically, the people who were making the theatre. I loved the various companies that came to the Old Red to put on a show. There was that first week of getting to know the cast and crew, and by Press Night you generally had a good idea what they liked to drink. Sometimes I was shy, but often I spent many a night getting the stage manager drunk and asking them about their previous work, or quizzing a tipsy director about his or her choice of blocking. I became interested in all aspects of a production, following Twitter reactions to the shows like a digital hawk, and singing the production’s praises to the pub punters below. To the shows that had interesting programmes, I thank you, for these are what I would read when the bar was quiet. And then there was that bittersweet closing night, where the actors get drunk and the techies get drunker.

If The Faraway Tree hollowed out its trunk, put ales in its roots and made a little seedy boozer, there’d be the same dizzying sensation of get-in and get-outs, of adventures had and adventures yet to come. Fringe theatre at its best is ambitious and aspirational. You climb the stairs, programme in one hand and pint in the other, and you squeeze into this intimate space to see pieces and performances which are forever burnt into your mind. Early on in my pub days, I saw my first Philip Ridley play, with an astounding revival of Fastest Clock of the Universe. That set the bar very high, and production after production would attempt to match and surpass it. The breadth of new writing and beautiful design in such a small theatre never ceased to impress me (just last month, the room was transformed into a wrestling ring) and with every show I found something to take with me back downstairs and chat about afterwards. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a domain for polished and sanitised productions. This is a place where production teams delve into the nitty gritty and come out covered in muck and holding up diamonds.

Philip Ridley's Piranha Heights at the Old Red Lion

Philip Ridley’s Piranha Heights at the Old Red Lion

The Old Red Lion Theatre Pub is 600 years old. What do I mean by that? I refer not to the theatre (which started in 1979, although it was a theatre club in 1948), nor the building itself (which in its current incarnation dates back to 1899). But at this spot, 600 years ago, a little inn outside the walls of London threw open its doors to passing travellers. The merchants and messengers would sit and drink and tell stories, and it’s a tradition that’s been passed from pub-goer to pub-goer ever since. You cannot help but stand in this tall and creaky building and look for its hidden history. Yes, a plaque on the wall reminds us that Thomas Paine wrote Part One of The Rights of Man here in the eighteenth century (I like to think he sobered up for Part Two), and names like Johnson and Hogarth are bandied around the pub’s Wikipedia page, but there are tales you probably won’t have heard unless you’ve been here and had a drink. Is it true Karl Marx used to meet his communist friends in one of the rooms upstairs? Is this where Kathy Burke and Gary Oldman used to relax in their student days? What’s the connection between the pub and cult- favourite Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace? Meet me for a pint and I’ll tell you of my own secret stories.

There is nothing polished and sanitised about my own adventures here, but that’s what makes them all the more fun to tell. With so many years under its belt, there may be the expectation that the Old Red Lion is nothing more than the sum of its past. But this is a theatre with a glowing and growing future. It’s apt to mention Ridley again, who is a big fan of the venue. “I love buildings with a sense of theatre,” he said in an interview with Exeunt last year, “Places where just the act of walking through the door is a theatrical experience.”

That theatrical experience is attracting a lot of emerging talent. Let me give you a bunch of names: Max Barton, Max Dorey, Emily Harwood, Andrew Maddock, Sarah Milton, Jonathan O’Boyle, Tom O’Brien, Moses Raine, Matthew Parker, Sarah Simmonds, Shuna Snow, Nancy Sullivan, Libby Todd, Ben Weatherill. I could go on. For me, these people have all been notable highlights at the Old Red. Chances are you’ll have heard of one or two of these folks. I promise you – come back to that list in a couple of years, and you’ll have heard a lot more about all of them. With artistic director Stewart Pringle at the helm, there’s a lot of marvellous and creative things happening at the Old Red, and not simply because Pringle is a marvellous and creative man.

A red roar.

A red roar.

Of course, I’m clearly biased. My first London play, The Dogs of War, will debut in this theatre at the end of the month. For a play exploring families and that idea of ‘where we come from’, it means so much to me that the production is going up where I started my London adventure and where I found my first London home. And we’re alongside barely-seen Beckett, a new musical and a Marina Carr revival – proof that this theatre refuses to be boxed-in and remains as enterprising as ever. If you’ve never been to the Old Red before, this is the time to come. After the show, I’ll be sat at a table at the back, with a Guinness and whatever you’re drinking. I’ll bring my Old Red history. You bring your own future. Like those merchants and messengers from so long ago, let’s tie up our horses outside and get wasted.

Tim Foley’s The Dogs of War is at the Old Red Lion, London, from 26th May – 20th June 2015

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