There was plenty for smaller venues to be positive about in 2010, says Paul Vale, with new opening, musicals pulling in the crowds and brisk ticket sales at the Edinburgh and Brighton festivals
The London fringe has seen the opening of at least five new venues this year including the New Diorama, Lost, Waterloo East, the New Red Lion and most recently the Print Room. The closure of Pizza on the Park in June did little to affect the popularity of cabaret in London and the Pheasantry on the King’s Road soon opened as its official replacement. More recently, the Bush Theatre has announced its move in 2011 to the Old Shepherd’s Bush Library, ensuring the renowned venue’s survival, while the Menier Chocolate Factory has issued plans for a second venue in its south London complex.
The Mountaintop by Katori Hall, which began life at Theatre503, impressed judges enough to win an Olivier Award for Best New Play. But leading the way with awards this year has to be the Finborough, currently celebrating its 30th birthday by winning the Peter Brook Empty Space Award and a Writers’ Guild of Great Britain prize in recognition of its support for new writing.
Naturally the fringe offers the best opportunity for new plays to flourish and this year has presented new work from both new and established authors such as Peter Nichols, Edward Bond and Jonathan Harvey. The Arcola brought Tom Wells’ Me, As a Penguin from the West Yorkshire Playhouse to a London audience and the Old Red Lion staged a revival of Trevor Griffiths’ The Wages of Thin. The White Bear was the venue for a remarkable production of Roy Smiles’ new political drama, The Last Pilgrim. The Blue Elephant staged a premiere of The Cave by the late Mervyn Peake and Riverside Studios was the venue for revivals of Peter Gill’s first plays, The Sleepers’ Den and Over Gardens Out. The Willy Russell season at the Menier proved a winner with both Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine transferring to Trafalgar Studios later in the year.
The Brighton Festival Fringe went from strength to strength, this year including performances from dance groups the Cholmondeleys and the Featherstonehaughs, Beckett’s Endgame from New Venture Theatre, and I Am a Warehouse by Richard Crane at Newhaven Fort. This year it also incorporated a LBGT mini-arts festival dubbed the Pink Fringe, including offerings from writer and performer Neil Bartlett.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe saw a rise in advance ticket sales in 2010. Highlights included two Stage award-winners – Roadkill at the Traverse by Cora Bissett, a traumatic sex-trafficking drama, and Singin’ I’m No a Billy, He’s a Tim, by Des Dillon at the Assembly, which dealt with bigotry in Scottish football.
The output of musicals at fringe venues has increased in the last year with both competent revivals and interesting new works. The Menier has led the way for several years, but both the Union and Landor have developed a solid reputation for musical theatre with seasons including highly accomplished productions of Assassins, Bells Are Ringing, Smokey Joe’s Cafe and Closer Than Ever. Upstairs at the Gatehouse pulled off a couple of fringe premieres too with Buddy – the Buddy Holly Story and The Drowsy Chaperone. Jermyn Street was one of the first of many fringe venues to mark Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday with a production of Anyone Can Whistle, while Above the Stag kept its tongue firmly in its cheek during Blink Twice, where it celebrated Jerry Herman’s 79th birthday.
Other important revivals appear to have been championed by director Thom Southerland, including Singin’ in the Rain, State Fair, Me & Juliet and Carousel at the Broadway Theatre Studio, Finborough and Trafalgar Studios 2.
And it is not just proven classics filling houses. New works are finding a welcome, if humble home in economically viable small venues. Porn – The Musical at Theatre503, Wolfboy at Trafalgar Studios and Departure Lounge at Waterloo East all transferred from the Edinburgh fringe, whereas Britain’s Got Bhangra at Theatre Royal Stratford East and Legacy Falls at the New Players originated at those venues.