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Running Round Hidden London

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As I spent half the weekend catching shows in out of the way London venues - the new Arcola in Dalston, the Hackney Empire, the Union in Southwark and the Little Angel in Islington - I decided to spend some of the other half getting away from it all on the Regent and Grand Union Canal.

So I ran along the tow path from Camden to Greenford in Middlesex. Desperate measures, you might think, but a good training stretch of about 12 miles in preparation for the half-marathon in three weeks' time in Stratford-upon-Avon.

It took me just over two hours. It then took me another two hours to get home by public transport: the Central Line was out of order, as half the Underground seems to be these days at weekends.

So a substitute bus took me from Greenford to Willesden Junction. Then a 20-minute wait for another substitute bus to ferry me back to Gospel Oak. So I had plenty of time to stretch and "warm down" in the sunshine.

And reflect on the beauty of my run, which became more rural with every step beyond the Paddington Basin and Kensal Rise. The canal winds through fields and allotments, playgrounds and golf courses, and I was accompanied all the way by flying swans and geese, canal boats chugging back towards Paddington and Regent's Park, and the occasional cyclist zooming along behind me without ringing a bell.

After Ealing, you hit Perivale, the suburban sprawl that, down by the canal, at least, is a bunch of warehouses and factories. In the third act of Shaw's Major Barbara, we adjourn to a "new town" called Perivale St Andrews, where Undershaft has his munitions factory.

There's a community clamped on to this Shavian utopia, rather like Titus Salt's Saltaire in West Yorkshire. But as the bus trip home revealed, the reality is far from utopian or even marginally attractive: it's nasty, drab and mean-spirited.

I much prefer the chaotic urban vivacity of Hackney and Dalston along the Balls Pond Road. David Bradley as Andy in Harold Pinter's Moonlight, currently at the Donmar Warehouse, protests he was never caught hanging around the Balls Pond Road: "I was a civil servant."

Some of that spirit rubs off on the new Arcola, where Abbey Wright's delightful production of two lesser-known David Mamet short plays has opened in the smaller studio. Even more unexpected in this milieu than Pinter's Andy would be a distinguished former editor of the Financial Times; yet there was Sir Geoffrey Owen in all his majesty and modesty.

So unassuming is and was Geoff that, when I introduced him to a colleague, Louise Jury of the Evening Standard, he mumbled that "he and I had worked together", not that he edited the whole damned paper.

Why was he there, taking the full flow of Mamet's scatological broadsides on the chin in the front row? He said no more than that there were family connections. With Abbey Wright, not Mamet. 

After leaving the FT, Geoff Owen took an important job with the London School of Economics and married the divorced wife of John Gross, Miriam Gross. He was a great tennis player in his day, too, once taking a set off the legendary Ken Rosewall at Wimbledon.

After the Mamet, I hopped on a bus down Graham Road to to Mare Street, where I caught the last half-hour of a packed out Variety bill in the Hackney Empire. There's an awful lot of variety and cabaret around at the moment, but it looks as though director Susie McKenna is on to a good thing here, and there is simply no finer setting in London for plays, cabaret or stand-up comedy, than Frank Matcham's gorgeous, gilded palace of dreams.

The bill included an outrageous Josephine Baker drag act, Wanda Braah; a sado-masochistic fire and razor-eating lady in black leather underwear, Missy Macabre; and a jovial, muscular baldy who contorts himself inside a six-foot green rubber balloon, Bruce Airhead. There was a very good onstage band, too, with vocals from the extraordinary Peter Straker, shimmying around in what looked like a ritualistic monk's gown designed by Issey Miyake.

Godspell at the Union is well worth seeing in Easter Week, and The Tempest at the Little Angel yet another reminder of one of the real theatrical joys of hidden London: you find the charming theatre in a passage leading off Upper Street, behind the grand houses in Cross Street, right opposite the Almeida Theatre.

The Little Angel sits in one of Islington's most delightful little squares, and this year celebrates 50 years in the same premises. Founder John Wright died some years ago, but his widow, Lyndie, is still there, greeting customers and making puppets behind the scenes. Their son, of course, Joe Wright is doing fairly well, too, in Hollywood these days...


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