How Network Rail made fringe network fail

The Union Theatre in Southwark
The Union Theatre in Southwark
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No one in the UK is a stranger to complaining about the railways. Constant delays, engineering works always planned at just the wrong time, rocketing ticket prices - the disasters go on. But perhaps what no Londoner expected on this list of grumbles was ‘The scourge of Southwark theatres’. Yet it seems Network Rail is on a mission to stamp out creativity within the arches of this London borough.

Major redevelopments in the area have meant the closure and relocation of two of our best fringe spaces and last month saw another threatened. In 2010, work on the Shard meant Shunt Lounge - a live art space and bar situated within a labyrinth of railway arches in London Bridge Station – was forced to close. A huge blow, it left the unique multi-disciplinary audience they had built up with nowhere to go.

Meanwhile, the Thameslink Programme is forcing the award winning Southwark Playhouse to relocate to Elephant and Castle . Facing closure they managed to make an agreement with Network Rail to return to the complex in 2018 after building work is complete. With a strong audience base it is to be hoped this relocation will not affect the programme too strongly, but it will undoubtedly be a major disruption – something no theatre needs in the current climate.

But at least it is only a temporary move. Heading down to the Union Theatre last month I was shocked to be told by concerned audience members that it was threatened with permanent closure . A cornerstone in the artistic community there, they were unsurprisingly distraught – as am I – about the threat, telling me that Network Rail are intending to turn the space into offices

[pullquote]The loss of the Union Theatre is a very real possibility[/pullquote]

No one is denying that major rail works are difficult to avoid, but to shut down a theatre so it can become offices seems to show an utter lack of priorities. The Union Theatre - which won the 2013 Stage 100 Award for fringe theatre of the year - has been running successfully for 15 years and is much lauded for its magnificent musical productions. It holds a unique position within the fringe theatre scene whereas, with the Shard just up the road, what this borough definitely doesn’t need is more offices.

Network Rail’s proposal is supposedly under the auspices of ‘regeneration’, but regeneration of what? Both the Southwark Playhouse and the Union Theatre are embedded in artistic local communities that are already flowering. As the distress shown by the people I spoke to shows, the loss of the Union Theatre would be greatly felt and yet it is a very real possibility.

Surely there is a way we can guard against situations like this in the future. If we can prove their community worth within an area, could we assign a protective cultural heritage status to buildings of artistic merit? Could the government be called upon to encourage Network Rail to gift the space to the Union Theatre as an example of the sort of commercial philanthropy Maria Miller is pushing so fiercely?

One thing we can do today is sign the following petition but I’ll also be speaking to Tom Copley from the London Assembly about this and if you’ve got any suggestions below I’d love to put them to him.


  1. Bit unfair to complain about Shunt – they were always told they had a limited time there, and were given the space at a very good rate for that reason.

  2. To lose this most magnificent of gems in the world of fringe theatre, which has consistently produced some of the finest productions that I have seen these past 15 years, would be bordering on criminal lunacy and it must not be allowed to happen.

  3. “The Union Theatre – which won the 2013 Stage 100 Award for fringe theatre of the year – has been running successfully for 15 years” – care to restate that. Still doing profit-share, still mostly unable to pay its casts. Rarely able to transfer work to the West End or other larger venues.
    Isn’t progress and merit about what you do with the work and how you get there? Running a business via unpaid labour for 15 years cannot be defined as a “success” – unless perhaps you run the business, in which case you’re laughing.
    “The Union Theatre as an example of the sort of commercial philanthropy Maria Miller is pushing so fiercely?” – now I’m laughing. That’s sarcasm right?

  4. I hate to be the one to tell you but’s not exactly a tragedy from the actors point of view.

    A few years ago a young actor friend of mine was coming out of Drama School and did a Show at Southward Playhouse. I can still see his face now. Show had opened to good press and decent audiences. The uneven cast of 11 was a real mixed bag, play was at best mediocre, the production had little support, and the ‘profit share’ was meagre.

    Same thing at the Union Theatre. Knew a company who brought in an amazing piece of theatre but were treated so poorly, even after they scored a critics choice. The Union was not too impressed with this large cast because they decided to take their cast after show drinking business to a pub nearby instead of the Union Bar.

    Shunt… Pity. But I’m afraid no one is going to the barricades to keep Shunt open. Actors did their bit already, worked for free. Nice shows though. Sometimes.

    I think we worry much more about the companies that pay their casts.

    Actors come and go. So do fringe venues. Meh.

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