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How the London fringe takes us to different worlds and places (with or without an A-Z)

Aisling Loftus and Gethin Anthony in The Hotel Plays. Photo: Simon Annand
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Theatre is a transporting place, of course – you leave the world you’re in for a couple of hours and go somewhere else, all from the safety of your theatre seat.

But sometimes you also have to do some of the journeying yourself. Just last week, for instance, not only did I enter the beautiful Langham Hotel, opposite BBC Broadcasting House near Oxford Circus, for the first time in my life – but I also found myself visiting three bedrooms there in quick succession.

This hotel – which opened in 1865 as Europe’s first ‘Grand Hotel’ – is home (until March 8) to a spellbindingly intense and intimate production of Tennessee Williams’ The Hotel Plays, a triple bill of rarely-seen shorts that are each set in a hotel room. Defibrillator Theatre Company first presented two of them – with a different third play – at a hotel in Holborn in 2012, but I missed that production, so it was a pleasure to catch up with this moody event this time.

Site-specific (or, as someone suggested on Twitter, ‘Suite-specific’) theatre like this lends an extra charge to the plays, which are individually quite slight. But crammed into a series of tiny hotel rooms, with the actors in touching distance from us, amplifies their impact considerably.

But next I’d really like to see a production of the musical Grand Hotel in a grand hotel! Perhaps the Langham could be the place. And this week I saw the British premiere of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts at Southwark Playhouse, set in a down-at-heel Chicago donut shop, that made me wonder if it might be even better staged in an actual donut shop (but not Dunkin’ Donuts or another corporate chain, as the struggling independence of the place is partly what it is about).

I’d seen the Broadway production of this play in 2009, where it came with a much more glamorous set (check out the picture gracing the New York Times review here), but the Southwark production had a bigger impact on me. You might not want to buy a donut in the shabby environs that this production creates for the shop, but you are pulled into the world of the play more powerfully, partly from being closer to its action, but also because we’re watching it in an edgier space.

Southwark Playhouse – in each of the three homes it has occupied in the south London borough – seems to have a special gift for making captivating theatres out of found spaces, whether a disused workshop in its original home, then railway arches under London Bridge station for its second home, and now a huge warehouse on busy Newington Causeway, halfway between Elephant and Castle and Borough tube stations.

That coincidentally makes it the closest theatre to where I live, but what’s fascinating about Southwark Playhouse isn’t just how they’ve carved out such unique and distinctive spaces, but also how they’ve taken their audience with them from place to place. When I saw Superior Donuts on Monday evening, the place was packed. And I’ll be back there next Monday, when the main house offers the world premiere of a new British-written musical The A-Z of Mrs P) about the woman who created the London A-Z.

Southwark Playhouse now occupies a key place on our London theatre map. And I love it that people seem to have no difficulty finding it…. You don’t even need an A-Z. Just come out of Borough tube, turn right, and it’s about five minutes down on the left.

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