Returning to favourite venues again and again

The St James Theatre in London. Photo: Tom Cronin
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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After a lifetime of going to the theatre as regularly as I do in both the West End and on Broadway, I have, of course, been to every major theatre in both cities, more than once. (Yes, even the St Martin's: though The Mousetrap has been running there in all my 35 years in London, I've actually seen it three times there. No, I can never remember whodunnit!)

I started going to the Her Majesty's before The Phantom of the Opera took up its seemingly permanent residence there, so I saw shows like Ain't Misbehavin', the stage professional premiere of Bugsy Malone, an early Nick Hytner production of The Scarlet Pimpernel that transferred from Chichester, and the Broadway musical On the Twentieth Century in its short-lived West End transfer, play there before it did.

I have been to Phantom's Broadway home, the Majestic, more than once, too: it was, in fact, the very first Broadway theatre I ever visited when I saw the original production of 42nd Street there in 1983, and have also been there for a memorial once.

But though there are many other West End theatres that have a more regular turn-over so that one visits them far more frequently, it is still difficult to establish an ongoing relationship with them: who knows when they'll suddenly get locked down with a long-running hit, as the Lyric for instance has become with Thriller Live, and now feels lost to the plays that used to regularly play there?

So for those of us who go to the theatre all the time, we are far more likely to have the tingle of familiarity with those producing venues that operate on limited runs, and you may therefore visit regularly throughout the year. And if they're programmed in an consistently interesting way, it's not just familiarity that will greet you, but a tingle of excitement, too: I always look forward to visits to the National, Young Vic, Almeida, Donmar, Tricycle or Hampstead now, though that hasn't always been the case and isn't necessarily always rewarded (as it wasn't last week at the Almeida).

But this list is far from a closed shop, and over the last year I've admitted another to my list: the St James studio. I'm no fan of the main house upstairs (it's far too steep and the rows too tightly packed against each other for leg room comfort), nor of the expensive cafe bar (£2.75 for a diet coke!), but I love the studio downstairs, and it's largely down to programming. I find myself there virtually every week now for one thing or another.

I was there last night yet again for the return of an American songwriting duo Kerrigan-Lowdermilk, who made there cabaret debut there back in February. I saw them then, too, and was very happy to see them again, playing to another packed house. It's fantastic that there seems to be a genuine appetite to hear new musical work nowadays in London, but especially when it comes packaged and presented by such fine talent as here.

Stuart Matthew Price, who also co-produced the event with James Yeoburn, is one of our very finest singers, and it was in fact on his own debut solo album that I first heard Kerrigan-Lowdermilk's 'Run Away with Me' for the first time a few years ago, so he's been championing their work for a long time.

Last night, though, that song was sung by Broadway actor/singer Michael Arden, who had been the very first person to sing it, so it had come full circle back to him. I'd run into Arden in New York the weekend before last when he was en route to London, and his second act showcase of a succession of their songs (plus one of his own) made me long to see him in solo concert, too. 

But it is wonderful to see artists of his calibre supporting new writing so avidly and persuasively, too. And it wasn't just him, but amongst local talent doing so, too, were Julie Atherton, Lucie Jones and Jodie Jacobs.

No wonder I keep going back to the St James. It is unquestionably my favourite cabaret venue in London now.