Once upon a time a lunch hour encompassed more than just a sandwich – in fact the hard-working employees of Soho could use it to see a Caryl Churchill play, or Bob Hoskins perform. Expert Matt Morrison is hoping to bring back the trend
Last month, Vaulty Towers, a pub and arts venue on London’s Lower Marsh Street, announced a new series of lunchtime performances under the enticing banner Play, Pie, Pint. The idea is borrowed directly from Glasgow’s Oran Mor, the UK’s most successful producer of lunchtime theatre.
Meanwhile, across the Irish Sea, Bewley’s Cafe Theatre in Dublin continued its long tradition of lunchtime shows with Jodi Gray’s new play Peep. Lunchtime theatre is, it seems, always cropping up somewhere.
But it never quite catches in the way it did during the 1970s and 1980s when it formed an integral part of the theatrical landscape. Then, audiences could enjoy their soup and sandwiches while actors such as Nigel Hawthorne, Harriet Walter and Bob Hoskins performed early works by writers including David Edgar, Caryl Churchill and Barrie Keeffe.
Lunchtime theatre’s most famous pioneer was probably the early Soho Theatre, which mounted its first production – a late-night show – half a century ago this year.
Venues such as the Open Space and the Wakefield Tricycle Company, now the Tricycle, opened around the same time. The Bush and the Orange Tree also put on lunchtime plays, as did other small companies operating out of West End pubs and basements.
The Stage was one of the earliest champions of this new movement. An article in 1968 declared “the spread of lunchtime activities is a healthy sign” and the paper’s theatre critic Douglas Blake reviewed many of the early productions. By the early 1970s, there were around a dozen venues in central London alone.
Despite their success and popularity, lunchtime theatres were treated with a degree of scepticism by critics and other theatremakers. In some quarters they were seen as little more than stepping stones to more elevated endeavours – functioning as a kind of theatrical R&D for actors and directors.
Another problem was the relatively few short plays available to fill the lunchtime slot. Seasons of work could therefore appear to be a jumbled mix of the old and new. Peter Ansorge, an influential critic at the time, described such output as “haphazard” and suggested the producing companies were “held together by no definite artistic principle or policy”.
Slowly, however, lunchtime theatre’s particular strengths began to reveal themselves. Plays had to grip from the off, especially if audience members were eating and drinking at the same time.
Writers such as John Grillo met this challenge by perfecting a ‘cartoon’ style that jettisoned realism in favour of fast-paced, visual storytelling. Monologues were also effective in the intimate spaces that hosted these lunchtime shows.
The lunchtime theatres were also places where awkward fits and unlikely combinations could produce surprising results. This was particularly true when it came to the use of scripts adapted from TV and radio drama.
This lunchtime practice, however, came in for frequent criticism. In the summer of 1971, the artistic director of the Open Space, Charles Marowitz, made a stinging attack on “one-act lunch cellars presenting tame slivers of old telly plays, toss-offs by writers too undernourished to provide full-length work”.
And yet, such adaptations often led to creative innovation. A case in point was the stage version of Joe Orton’s television play The Good and Faithful Servant, directed by Fred Proud at the King’s Head in 1971. Forced to find solutions to the televisual use of multiple locations, Proud directed a multi-stage production with the audience’s attention directed to a variety of different playing spaces. This brought the audience into the heart of the action and encouraged a more empathetic relationship with Orton’s characters.
Underlying much of the work produced at the lunchtime venues, was an important belief in the value of disrupting working life. While evening performances contributed to a prescribed demarcation of work and leisure time, the lunchtime companies proved theatre could be enjoyed at different points during the day.
By shaking things up in this way, they hoped to challenge other entrenched patterns of thought and behaviour. Proud, Soho Theatre’s first artistic director, believed the ideal audience would consist of “people who just wandered in one lunchtime as a break from their office routine”. He hoped this “might really present them with an alternative way of living”. It was a profoundly radical idea that spoke directly to the iconoclastic impulses of the period.
Today, the very idea of a lunch hour seems old-fashioned – how many people just grab a sandwich at their desk? And maybe that’s why few lunchtime experiments manage to sustain themselves for long. On the other hand, perhaps our 21st-century working patterns are once again in need of disruption.
Over at the old Soho Poly basement – the subterranean home of the Soho Theatre from 1972-1990 – I’ve been testing this idea with some new lunchtime experiments. Together with co-producer Guy Osborn, we’ve been inviting people to this historical space to see pop-up performances by groups such as the poetry collective Live Canon and site-specific theatre company Hannah Bruce and Company.
In each case the goal has been the same: to challenge expectations of what a fulfilling ‘working’ day might look like. We’ve also been exploring the possibilities offered by live-streaming. If we can’t get people to the theatre at lunchtime, perhaps we can still get challenging and provocative work to them, as they sit munching sandwiches at their office desks.
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