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Mark Shenton’s top venues: Southwark Playhouse

Southwark Playhouse's current Elephant and Castle site. Photo: Safavi PR Southwark Playhouse's current Elephant and Castle site. Photo: Safavi PR
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Earlier this week, I was one of the judges of the Empty Space Peter Brook awards, that every year acknowledges fringe and studio theatres that are doing good work around the country. I delivered the citations for two of them, Bath’s Ustinov Studio (that has produced such shows as the current hit West End transfer of The Father, and Bad Jews that played at both the St James Theatre and the Arts Theatre) and Southwark Playhouse, London. (The award was actually won by Richmond’s Orange Tree.)

It got me to thinking about some of my favourite venues around the country, so I’m going to start a regular series here on them. And this week, I will start with Southwark Playhouse, lifted from the speech I gave for its nomination.

It’s not just the fact that Southwark Playhouse is less than five minutes walk from my home that I love it so much or consider it my local. It has also brought some of my favourite musical productions and plays of the last year right to my doorstep. 

These include, since last Christmas alone, a truly stunning production of the Broadway musical Grand Hotel that I saw twice in less than 24 hours (a first for me), after revisiting it for a second time on a Monday night and then again on Tuesday afternoon.

Then there was the British premiere of a notorious musical flop Carrie that the Royal Shakespeare Company had taken to Broadway nearly 30 years ago, but was brought back here as a hit, and the cult Off-Broadway show Bat Boy: The Musical that was a fast West End flop but returned here as a bizarre but compelling delight. I also loved the stage version of Gods and Monsters and the British premieres of Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina and Tennessee Williams’ One Arm, each of them in superb productions there. (I’m afraid I was less keen on Xanadu that I reviewed earlier this week, but you can’t win them all.)

Those are just a few of the shows presented in Southwark’s fantastic pair of adjoining spaces, the Large and the Little. In the past few months, other productions first seen in Southwark have played near and far, with transfers of Titanic to Toronto and In the Heights to the King’s Cross Theatre, London, where it is currently running. (I never made it to Toronto, alas, but just before the company departed for Canada, I snuck into their final dress rehearsal in a south London studio to hear them sing this score once more.)

Southwark Playhouse has a unique knack for spaces

Southwark Playhouse has proved to have a unique knack of taking over found spaces and totally remaking them, from its original home when it was founded 22 years ago in an old workshop space on the Southwark Bridge Road, to the railway tunnels beneath London Bridge it moved to in 2006, to its current former industrial premises on Newington Causeway near Elephant and Castle in 2013.

But it’s not just the wonderful flexibility of the spaces they have created in each, in which you never know what the configuration of the theatres will be, but also the welcoming public spaces they have created. The bar, that also serves food, is now a social magnet outside of showtimes, as well as during them.

The theatre has also proved to be a remarkable training ground for a whole generation of artistic directors, including Mehmet Ergan (now of the Arcola), Erica Whyman (now deputy artistic director at the RSC), Gareth Machin (now at Salisbury Playhouse) and directors Thea Sharrock and Ellie Jones. Now it continues to thrive under Chris Smyrnios. Long may it continue to do so.

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