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Lyn Gardner: It’s time to stop romanticising the London fringe and clamp down on rogue operators

Tea House Theatre. Photo: Ewan Munro Tea House Theatre. Photo: Ewan Munro
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In Paddington 2, Hugh Grant plays villainous actor Phoenix Buchanan, a man of unlimited egotism and fading fame. To fund his one-man comeback show – an evening of monologue and song on the London fringe – Phoenix turns thief, stealing a pop-up book of London which puts him on collision course with the little bear from darkest Peru.

I reckon Phoenix is being optimistic on several fronts. Anyone hoping to stage a show on the London fringe would probably have to pull off a full-scale bank robbery to cover the cost of some of the hires. And even then, if he did hire the theatre, his one-man show may well pass off almost entirely unnoticed.

The days when the London fringe  was a place where the penniless and the radical – often denied access to traditional theatre spaces – could find a nook or cranny where they could thrive, have long gone.

Mark Shenton’s top 6 London fringe theatres

Their place has often been taken by artist-led initiatives such as Forest Fringe and Buzzcut, which exist not just outside of buildings but outside of any of the traditional structures of theatre. Many younger theatremakers are more interested in found spaces than they are in a black box theatre above a pub, or one-night pop-ups.

In any case, what we might once have called ‘fringe’ is now part of the mainstream. Soho (previously the Soho Poly, where I once spent a happy couple of weeks as a teenager, just hanging out and sourcing props in an entirely unofficial capacity), the Bush, and Battersea Arts Centre are now an integral part of our subsidised theatre culture.

Even the unsubsidised venues are part of wider schemes for regeneration and property development opportunities. One of London’s first pub theatres, the King’s Head, is vacating its premises at the back of a pub in Upper Street and moving into a purpose-built venue in the £400 million Islington Square down the road. Like the Park Theatre in North London, the upcoming Streatham Theatre is part of a private housing development.

There are survivors from a golden age of pub theatre including the mighty little Finborough which, under Neil McPherson, continues to offer a mixture of neglected classics and new writing in a cannily curated mix.

Theatre503 is a crucial part of the new-writing ecology. The Orange Tree lost funding and reinvented itself to the good. But there is a significant difference between a space that is artistically curated and one that is merely a space for hire.

While many will point to the fact that the London fringe is the place where Deborah Warner and Katie Mitchell honed their craft, or where The Play That Goes Wrong was first noticed, I’d say those were the exceptions rather than the rule.

In the current climate of reduced critical coverage – just five years on from its Old Red Lion debut – I doubt The Play That Goes Wrong would now garner the reviews necessary to give it further life.

Only last week I was in correspondence with a playwright whose award-winning play had a three-week run at a significant London fringe venue and yet didn’t attract a single national review. Even Time Out stayed away. London is awash with theatre on all scales. Some argue that it is over-saturated, particularly in the era of the instant down-load and rising fringe theatre ticket prices.

But it’s not just about getting reviews. Oddly it’s sometimes easier to get a programmer, producer or artistic director to see your work on the Edinburgh fringe when they are in full-on talent-scouting mode than it is to entice them a few miles down the road in London.

If you simply want to hire a space, then I would suggest that the Edinburgh fringe is the better bet. Although nowadays, because of the costs involved, neither are a place to hone your craft. You have to deliver the goods and have a spot of luck if you are not going to sink under the debt.

At least, if your venue treats you badly or fails to release monies owed on the Edinburgh Fringe, other people learn about it sharpish, as with Summerhall a few years back.

But on the London Fringe there are few mechanisms for complaints in place. This week, the Courtyard in Hoxton faced allegations of treating theatremakers who had hired the space in unacceptable ways. Earlier this year, the Tea House Theatre in south London faced a backlash after its employment practices came to light.

In her excellent piece for Exeunt, Alice Saville suggests it is time to stop being misty-eyed about the romance of some of London’s more maverick fringe venues. She points out the real customers at these spaces are not the ticket-buying public but the theatre companies who pay them sometimes thousands of pounds to hire the space.

Saville proposes, at the very least, a website for companies to rate fringe venues they have used, a kind of Trip Advisor in which companies can reflect on their experiences, good and bad. It’s a good idea, because otherwise, in an unregulated market without any code of conduct, rogue operators will continue to thrive.

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