Mark Shenton: The Landor Theatre closure reminds us that London’s vibrant fringe is as precarious as ever
This week, Southwark’s absolutely invaluable Union Theatre shuts after a final matinee on Sunday June 26, after a run of more than 18 years. In 2013 it won The Stage Award for fringe theatre of the year, it has regularly been nominated for the Empty Space Peter Brook Award and it has had productions nominated for the Off West End Theatre Awards.
Those of us who are regulars at the theatre – and I’m an almost daily visitor to its outdoor cafe, as my office is right around the corner – value it as not just as a theatre but as the centre of a local community. I know many of the other cafe regulars, and even found my Pilates teacher among them.
Fortunately, this particular story has a happy ending: no sooner does it close than it moves beneath a newly refurbished railway arch right across the street. And no, I’m not going to miss the ancient loos – among the most appalling of any theatre in London. But I may miss the dank, damp atmosphere that permeates the place, even as I try not to think about the spores emanating from the walls.
Still, new beginnings are hopefully going to bring not just better loos but also a guaranteed future for the precarious theatre that was established in this part of town nearly 20 years ago. That was long before the Tate Modern and the current rush of gentrification that has led to a luxury flat development going up across the street and a Gordon Ramsay restaurant on the next corner.
But even as we celebrate this rebirth, I’m saddened to hear of the sudden loss of another fringe gem: the Landor Theatre, above the Clapham pub of the same name, after a run of more than 21 years.
Like the Union, it has forged a particular reputation for impressive studio musical revivals and new shows, and I’ve seen some great things there over the years (and some, it has to be admitted, not so great). The fringe is not particularly receptive to musical theatre – musicals tend to feature larger casts, so profit shares can’t return much (if anything) to their participants, given the low number of seats available to sell (assuming you can even fill them). So there are only a handful of theatres that regularly try to put them on.
The Landor was one of them – and did some mad things, like squeezing Sondheim’s Follies into its tiny space. But it also did a magnificently imaginative version of Ragtime here that my husband still ranks as one of the most thrillingly designed shows he’s ever seen. It also offered the London premiere of A Class Act, and did well by Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man and A Winter’s Tale.
I hope that Robert McWhir, the Landor’s artistic director, can find another London home to continue his great work. Another London company that regularly produces musicals – London Theatre Workshop – is about to move from a pub in Fulham to Leadenhall Market in the City of London. Its founder and artistic director Ray Rackham is also seeing a show he developed, Through the Mill, go on to have a second life at Southwark Playhouse next month. I’m looking forward to having this company closer to home (for me, anyway).
Perhaps I’m being selfish. The great thing about the fringe is precisely its geographical diversity. After all, if it wasn’t for Ye Olde Rose and Crown, I’d never have had a reason to go to Walthamstow. And thanks to an artistic director who is particularly passionate about Howard Goodall, I’ve been many times.