Liam Rudden: Spirit of the Fringe, all year round

The Union theatre and cafe, London. Pic: Liam Rudden
The Union theatre and cafe, London. Pic: Liam Rudden
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JUST back from London where theatre is thriving, and I’m not talking about the big West End blockbusters you read about on billboards and the sides of buses.

No, some of the best productions are to be found in tiny pub theatres and converted spaces that pop up in the least likely places. It’s an independent theatre culture that Edinburgh currently lacks, but one I briefly dallied with in Leith a few years back, staging shows in Kitsch, a small cafe with a dramatic flair and a capacity of 30.

After all, if such spaces work during the Fringe, surely there could be a market the rest of the year?

In London it’s amazing what you can find in such dinky venues, programmed in much the same way as their more commercial counterparts. Over the weekend I took in three such venues, The King’s Head Pub Theatre in Islington, The Bridgehouse Pub Theatre, Penge, and The Union Theatre in Southwark.

The long-established King’s Head has long been a favourite. The front of the building is a good old-fashioned boozer, the back room, a basic 100-seat space that is moulded to a production’s requirements - Trainspotting recently sold out there.

Similarly, The Bridgehouse is an upstairs room, painted black, with a simple lighting rig, 60 chairs and a flat performance space. Saw a great one-man show about Tony Benn there - Tony’s Last Tape. It’s coming to the Fringe, so watch out for it.

But by far the most effective use of space was The Union, basically an old railway arch, which has been cleverly converted into a performance space, cafe and bar. Seating 50 it’s like being part of an exclusive club, not least because the production showing there is Closer To Heaven, a musical by Jonathan Harvey and the Pet Shop Boys, which sold out its four-week run in minutes.

Which just shows, get the product right and in London a night at the theatre doesn’t have to be a trip to the West End. It could be the same here.