LONDON’S Islington is gaining a fine reputation for fringe theatre. And quite rightly so.
Within a distance of a mile and a bit of each other – a brisk walk – three theatres are currently waging their private war for local bragging rights. Having visited all three in the past month, there is little to choose between them.
All are parts of busy pubs. All are delivering cutting-edge theatre. All are raising the bar despite a constant battle for survival and a search for funding.
The King’s Head Theatre (115 Upper Street) is the most up-front about the need for cash with staff waving a bucket before every performance and beseeching all to fold (clever eh?) their contributions into it at the end of the show. Given the passion with which the plea is made, it is difficult not to empty your pockets in support.
Closest to Central London is The Old Red Lion Theatre (418 St John Street), a couple of minutes away from Angel Station.
Its production of Listening Room (ends March 4) is an unforgettable piece of theatre, portraying the aftermath of three real-life violent crimes. Redemption, forgiveness and the mindlessness of most violence are the key themes of Harriet Madeley’s play (directed by Max Barton) and it succeeds on so many levels.
It is engrossing, painful and uplifting to watch. Audience participation ensures you remain absorbed throughout. Indeed, members of the audience help determine which cast members play particular parts.
This production follows in the wake of the Old Red Lion’s Birthday Suit, a more fun piece of theatre (but not without its pain) centred on the 40th birthday party of tuxedo-clad Richard (Liam Bewley).
A party that turns out not to be quite the party promised by Richard to his new work companion Diane (Emma-Jane Martin) and her pretty boyfriend Nick (a reluctant guest).
War ensues, especially when Richard’s wife Valerie (a wonderfully neurotic Emily Stride) arrives on the scene and recognises Nick (an ex-lover who left her for Diane). Other guests? Wisely, they have decided to steer clear.
The Hope, above the Hope & Anchor pub (207 Upper Street) and a short walk south from Highbury & Islington tube station, has been excelling.
Its recent production of The Wild Party (based on a long narrative poem written by Joseph Moncure March in the late 1920’s) was sexy, risqué and zany with young – and hugely talented – actors Joey Akubeze and Anna Clarke performing miracles (and also multi-tasking).
Those who fancy a more glitzy production of The Wild Party should pay The Other Palace (St James’s Theatre until Andrew Lloyd Webber got his hands on it) a visit. The show runs until April Fool’s Day. I have not seen it yet but I intend to.
The King’s Head Theatre has not been left behind. Rob Crouch’s virtuoso performance in Oliver Reed: Wild Thing earlier this year was a tour de force (I have never seen an actor drink so much fluid on stage and not be forced to take a comfort break).
Its productions tend to be more ambitious than its two other rivals, with a particular forte for covering gay issues.
This month sees the Chemsex Monologues (Patrick Cash) which focuses on London’s chill-out scene, telling the untold stories of ‘porn stars, fag hags and sexual health workers’. It runs from March 21 to April 9.
Also showing is musical Adam & Eve & Steve. Set in the Garden of Eden it promises a ‘love triangle with a twist’. It should be a must-see given the accolades it won last year at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It runs from March 21 to April 29.
It is also not frightened to tackle theatre (or opera) that you would not normally associate with fringe theatre.
Its current production of Madame Butterfly (running until March 18) is a case in point. It is ‘opera’ pared back to the bone with Panaretos Kyriatzidis and Alison Halford providing sterling support on piano and cello respectively.
It is ambitious, is not to everyone’s taste but it just about works, thanks to some strong performances from Stephanie Edwards (Butterfly on the night I saw it but alternating with Becca Marriott), Arthur Swan (a whisky drinking Pinkerton) and David Jones (Sharpless).
It is all set in a maid’s café in 21st century Nagasaki with Pinkerton a serving officer on the USS Abraham Lincoln. For the first act, Butterfly wears a garish pink wig before settling for more modest Americanised clothing in the second act when she realises she has been betrayed and kills herself.
I found it compulsive viewing, especially the second act. As did the rest of the audience with Edwards receiving warm applause for her performance.
If you like your theatre dangerous and unconventional, The King’s Head’s modern take on Madame Butterfly is for you. Traditionalists should steer clear.
Islington is where it is happening. Forget Arsenal Football Club. Watch some cutting edge fringe theatre. Better value for money and more entertaining.