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Mark Shenton’s top 6 London fringe theatres

The cast of Hair at the Vaults, London. Photo: Claire Bilyard. The cast of Hair at the Vaults, London. Photo: Claire Bilyard
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In London’s ever-changing theatrical landscape – augmented last week by the official arrival of the new 900-seat Bridge Theatre beside Tower Bridge – there’s a roster of fringe theatres that come and go.

Even the King’s Head – widely regarded as London’s original pub theatre – is soon to shut its doors in its current home and relocate to brand-new premises in large development being built behind it.

This week also saw the presentation of the last ever Empty Space Peter Brook Awards, which for the past 28 years have championed and promoted this sector, thanks to the extraordinary determination of founder Blanche Marvin, who, at 93, still gets to more off-the-wall theatres than I ever do.

But I’m glad to have played my own small part in being part of her judging panel, and this year was particularly happy to see Manchester’s Hope Mill acknowledged.

I’ve regularly bemoaned the fact that there aren’t enough nights in the week to get everywhere, but the Empty Space Awards and my fellow judges’ enthusiasms are a constant reminder of venues that I don’t manage to get to. For example, I’m yet to visit this year’s winner, the Yard, or last year’s – the New Diorama.

So, I realise this list of six favourite London fringe theatres, is only a partial one. If I visited more of them, others may become favourites too. And, I hasten to add, I don’t visit these as often as I’d like, either.

1. Orange Tree

The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster
The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster

Paul Miller, the artistic director of this in-the-round theatre in Richmond, took over from original founder Sam Walters in 2014. But on his first day in the job, he received a body blow when the theatre’s Arts Council funding was summarily axed. But three years later, the Orange Tree is not just surviving but thriving. It has transferred shows such as Pomona to the National, and next year its production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon will follow it there.

2. Union Theatre

The Union Theatre in Southwark

I have a long-established affection for the Union, particularly as it promotes rarely seen and new musicals that are a particular personal passion of mine. Its new premises – right across the street from its previous home in Southwark – offers much better facilities (including proper functioning loos), with its cafe bar, which spills out onto the terrace outside, one of the friendliest in London.

3. Finborough Theatre

There are plans for plans for three residential flats to be developed above the Finborough auditorium. Photo: Matthew Turner
The Finborough Theatre in west London. Photo: Matthew Turner

Under Neil McPherson, possibly the most unsung of all major artistic directors in Britain, the Finborough has continued to plough a fertile path of new plays and rare revivals that gives it an influence disproportionate to its tiny 50-seat size. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, for this Earl’s Court venue to make enough money to pay people, but actors and writers value it for the unique opportunities it provides to offer close-up experiences.

4. The Vaults

London's Vaults
London’s Vaults

I’m surprising myself placing this Waterloo venue on my list as I long resisted its grunginess. But it has finally won me over with its current tenant, the immersive production of Hair that completely owns the space and makes the audience feel part of the experience.

5. Arcola Theatre

The Arcola's auditorium. Photo: Miriam Mahony/Arcola Theatre
The Arcola’s auditorium. Photo: Miriam Mahony/Arcola Theatre

This former paint factory in Dalston is now a vibrant home for painting theatrical pictures. It’s also one of the most eco-friendly theatres in London.

6. Jermyn Street Theatre

A bijou studio theatre in the heart of the West End, just off Piccadilly Circus, the subterranean Jermyn Street Theatre is perfectly tailored, in every sense, for intimate rediscoveries of rarely seen plays that have become one of its signatures. Its new artistic director Tom Littler has recently declared his intention to turn it into a full-time producing theatre, as well as committing the theatre to the Equity Fringe Agreement, which ensures that performers are paid a legal wage.

Read our interview with Tom Littler

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