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Mark Shenton: It’s time to sing the praises of fringe theatres

Bizzie Day and Kate Wasserberg from the Other Room, Cardiff, winner of The Stage best fringe theatre award. Photo: Alex Brenner
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Last week I was directly involved, as I’ve mentioned, in a number of theatre awards events, from this year’s Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards to The Stage Awards, via judging for the Off West End Theatre Awards.

Each event serves and rewards a slightly different theatrical constituency. The Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards establish a consensus among professional theatre critics about some of the best shows and performances of the year. They are entirely free of the industry pressures that drive the Society of London Theatre’s Olivier Awards, or the promotional pressures of the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, which have turned into a celebrity-driven promotional tool for the free newspaper.

The Stage Awards take a broader view of the year’s achievements than specific productions or performances, rewarding excellence in eight categories to theatres, schools and people that have made a mark in the previous 12 months. This year, prizewinners included the Almeida (London theatre of the year), Manchester’s Royal Exchange (regional theatre of the year), Cardiff’s the Other Room (fringe theatre of the year), Sonia Friedman, (producer of the year, for the second year running), the National for its NT Future refurbishment and rebuild (theatre building of the year) and ArtsEd (school of the year). You can see the full results and interviews with the winners on The Stage website.

The Stage Awards also has a delightfully idiosyncratic award for an unsung hero, for which submissions are invited from the public and industry. This year saw the award go to Roger Miller, who led a campaign to save the moth-balled Felixstowe Spa Pavilion Theatre, and succeeded in having it returned to working use.

The fringe, of course, has more than its fair share of unsung heroes, as a sector driven by the love of making theatre, not money. The Offies provide an opportunity, beyond The Stage’s fringe theatre of the year and the Empty Space Peter Brook Award, to reward specific productions and the people who have worked on them, rather than the theatre buildings in which they’ve been staged.

But without pre-empting the awards themselves, I have – like The Mikado’s Ko-Ko – my own little list of some of those who deserve acknowledgement for their personal investment in the theatres they run. These people seldom seem to get recognised at places where, if anything at all is noticed, it is individual shows that get the glory. The founding and administrative backbone of the place may only be noticed as the person who sells you your ticket or serves you your interval drink.

Take Penny Horner, who, for 22 years now, has been in charge of Jermyn Street Theatre. She and Howard Jameson had it converted from a restaurant changing room into what is now the most swish studio space in London. She’s brought in artistic directors such as David Babani, subsequently founder of the globally influential Menier Chocolate Factory, who cut his youthful teeth there. The theatre has also welcomed Gene David Kirk and, currently, Anthony Biggs to bring creative gravitas to the place. But Horner is always there – managing the tiny office, greeting audiences by their first names, and making sure it all runs professionally.

I’ve also long been a devoted fan of Southwark’s tiny, decidedly grimy but utterly indispensable Union Theatre. Established by fringe hero Sasha Regan 18 years ago, it is now one of London’s best homes for rediscovered musicals. Later this year it will move to newly converted premises across the street from its current site, which will increased seating capacity and no doubt have better toilets. I hope it retains the youthful vigour and swagger that has seen its all-male Gilbert and Sullivan shows, such as The Pirates of Penzance, transfer to other theatres in London, go on a national tour and make a visit to such far-flung places as Australia.

Further away from the West End, but serving a loyal local constituency, is Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse, where husband and wife team John and Katie Plews have run the theatre for more than 20 years. John always directs the Christmas musical, and their daughter, Racky, now a fully professional choreographer, first choreographed there.

Another theatre founder is Above the Stag’s Peter Bull, who has a day job as a flight attendant but in 2008 established Britain’s only full-time LGBT theatre above a pub in Victoria. When its original home got swept away in the current redevelopment of the area, he found a brand-new space under a railway arch in Vauxhall, where he continues to programme work that is alternately serious and challenging, and light and funny. These range from the annual adult pantomime – titles have included Jack Off The Beanstalk and Treasure Island: The Curse of the Pearl Necklace – to new musicals such as the imminent Torsten, The Beautiful Libertine, which will star Erasure’s Andy Bell.

At the tiny Hope Theatre in Islington, Matthew Parker has taken over from founding artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher to maintain a policy, rare on the fringe and especially in a theatre that seats only 50 people, of paying a legal wage to all actors, stage managers and box office staff. Parker’s production of Snoo Wilson’s Lovesong of the Electric Bear has received three Offie nominations.

And two long-established fringe theatres – Camden People’s Theatre and Islington’s Old Red Lion – have lately been blossoming into new artistic life thanks to Brian Logan and Amber Massie-Blomfield (at the former) and Stewart Pringle (at the latter). Both Logan and Pringle also work as theatre critics, giving lie to the fact that those that can’t do, criticise.

But the biggest fringe hero of them all is surely Neil McPherson, who has been at the helm of the disproportionately influential Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court for 17 years now, and weathered many storms as pub landlords have come and gone downstairs. He’s a solid rock of stability in the fringe’s choppy waters; he should be running the Royal Court, but seems happy running his own tiny ship.

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