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London pub theatres celebrate milestone anniversaries

We say happy birthday to these theatrical institutions with a pint and a play

The Finborough Theatre
© Douglas Mackie

On these cold autumn nights, what could be better than to cosy up in a pub theatre with a pint in hand and some of the capital's best fringe performances on the stage? And over the next few months, a selection of these theatrical institutions celebrate some milestone birthdays.

So we say happy birthday to a few of the venues that are continuing the pub theatre tradition, first seen back in Shakespeare's time!


Old Red Lion Theatre

The Old Red Lion Theatre
© Adam Bruderer

The Old Red Lion has spent the last year celebrating its 40th anniversary, with past artistic director Ken McClymont coming back to present a revival of Danelaw and the London Horror Festival – the UK's largest festival of live horror performance – entering its ninth year.

Over its history, the Islington pub theatre has played host to Abi Morgan, Joe Penhall, Kathy Burke, Stephen Daldry, Penelope Skinner and Nina Raine. It was home to Mischief Theatre's premiere of The Play That Goes Wrong and the world premiere of Arthur Miller's first play No Villain, last seen in the West End in 2016.

The site itself has hosted a pub for over 600 years – the original tavern was called the "Redde Lyon" and stood on the same spot in 1415 surrounded by countryside and fields.

Current artistic director Katy Danbury is the ninth since the theatre's inception, following on from the likes of Charlie Hanson, McClymont and Stewart Pringle. The theatre has built a reputation on the fringe as a home for new theatrical talent and a venue presenting reincarnations of neglected works.

Danbury comments of the current season: "I am proud to see the Old Red Lion's 40th anniversary out with equal gender representation across the final season and a celebration of both young and established playwrights".


Canal Cafe Theatre

The cast of NewsRevue
© Pete Smith

Turning 40 this year, the Canal Cafe Theatre hosts theatre and comedy on Regent's Canal. The venue is home to the Guinness World Record-breaking show NewsRevue, the world's longest running comedy show that plays four nights a week, 50 weeks of the year. NewsRevue frequently tours to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has included the likes of Rory Bremner, Alistair McGowan, Bill Bailey, Michelle Collins, Zoe Lyons, Sara Pascoe and Nick Helm.

The Canal Cafe Theatre has also hosted famous comedians such as John Oliver, Miranda Hart, The League of Gentlemen, Eddie Izzard, The Mighty Boosh, Catherine Tate and Dara O'Briain. In 2002, an in-house production of Lucky Stiff was nominated in the WhatsOnStage Awards for Best Musical Revival in the same category as Kiss Me Kate (Victoria Palace Theatre), Where's Charlie? (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre) and My Fair Lady (National Theatre/ Theatre Royal Drury Lane).

The 60-seat theatre is based above the Bridge House Pub in Little Venice, thought to have been so named by the poet Robert Browning.


White Bear Theatre

Philip Goodhew in The Ungrateful Biped
© Andreas Lambis

Opening in 1989, the White Bear Theatre celebrates its 30th year as a venue focussed on new writing and lost classics. In its lifetime, the venue has played host to Joe Penhall, Emily Watson, Mehmet Ergen, Tamzin Outhwaite, Kwame Kwei Armah, Vicky Featherstone, Torben Betts and Lucinda Coxon. Original founder Michael Kingsbury is still the artistic director.

The Kennington pub itself has been onsite since 1780 and underwent extensive renovations in 2016.


King's Head Theatre

The cast of King Tut at the King's Head Theatre
© Bill Knight

The King's Head Theatre is the first pub theatre since Shakespearean times. Founded in 1970 by Dan Crawford, it will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year when it plans to move into a new, purpose-built venue in Islington Square. The venue is one of 10 charities receiving a share of the profits from Ian McKellen's 80th birthday theatre show, Ian McKellen On Stage with Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and You.

Over the last half-century, actors including Joanna Lumley, Hugh Grant, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Alan Rickman, Richard E Grant and Maureen Lipman have performed on the Islington stage, which has also played host to premieres by Steven Birkoff (Kvtch in 1991) and Tom Stoppard (Descending a Staircase in 1986). Stoppard's Olivier-nominated performance was followed up more recently with the 2011 Olivier Award-winning opera La Bohème. Another version of the opera was also nominated for an Olivier Award in 2017, both directed by current artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher who also co-founded Opera Up Close.

The King's Head Theatre is run by Spreadbury-Maher – celebrating his 10th year in 2020 – and executive director Fiona English, with producer James Seabright as chair of the board. Seabright and the venue are also behind touring production Trainspotting Live. It


Finborough Theatre

Harry McEntire and Tyrone Huntley in Homos, Or Everyone In America
© Marc Brenner

The Finborough Theatre was founded in 1980, making it 40 years old next year. The venue's current artistic director, Neil McPherson, is currently celebrating 20 years in the post, commissioning text-based new writing as well as rediscovering neglected works from the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Kensington venue most recently received an Olivier Award nomination in 2017 for its production of It Is Easy To Be Dead, which transferred to Trafalgar Studios. Rory Bremner, Jo Brand, Julian Clary, Kathy Burke, Ken Campbell, Jane Horrock and Rachel Weisz have all performed at the theatre, with McPherson discovering works by Martin Mcdonagh (The Pillowman), James Graham (Albert's Boy), Jack Thorne (Fanny and Faggot) and Mark Ravenhill (Shopping and F**king) during his tenure.

In the 1980s, even theatre producer Nica Burns played at the theatre, presenting its late-night comedy and cabaret shows on Fridays and Saturdays.

The Finborough Arms, above which sits the Finborough Theatre, was founded in 1868.

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