How Network Rail made fringe network fail

The Union Theatre in Southwark
Honour Bayes is a freelance arts journalist who has written extensively for The Stage and had work published in the Guardian, Independent, Time Out, Exeunt Magazine and The Church Times. She is currently Associate Editor on Chinese arts magazine ArtZip and has worked as web editor for the Royal College of Art, managing its arts and design coverage.
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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.