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Where's the Arcola Welcome?

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A second visit to the new Arcola last night was not, overall, a happy experience. It was opening night, but no sign of artistic director Mehmet Ergen or his executive director, Ben Todd, even if it was only a student production of Anna Karenina.

The bar area remains a big problem. It is too cramped. The service is shockingly bad. A big coffee machine in the middle of the bar obstructs communication across it. There were no free cast lists, only playtexts on sale, which is unforgiveable.

Front of house was virtually non-existent, resulting in a late start for Anna leading to a disastrous confluence of two interval audiences, one from Studio One, the other from Studio Two, where there's a play called Boy on a Swing.

As that little audience merged with the bigger one to form an Exodus-style queue to the Promised Land of the disobliging bar, I decided to poke my head inside Studio Two to see what it looked like. I'd hardly registered that it looked like nothing at all - a featureless, carpeted office, with boring, utilitarian chairs - when a lone member of the FOH staff told me in no uncertain terms to withdraw my interest.

You may think none of this matters. And you'd be wrong. Good theatre starts in the foyer, and I don't mean actors pillocking around or blowing wind instruments. I mean the setting of mood and consideration for an audience that has bothered to turn up. The old Arcola was an agreeable destination at all times, even when the programme stuttered. The new one is like any old ATG theatre in the West End.

The new Arcola, which should be the pride of Dalston, is hidden away in a dark street opposite both train stations -- that location should be its big selling point.

Next door, there's a cafe that shuts at 5.30pm and stays shut until private parties and discos kick off at 8pm. Somehow, Mehmet and Co have to link up with this venue and share some much-needed table and chair space, either in the cafe, or on the pavement running alongside. 

Things are much different and much better at the other two fringe venues I visited over the weekend, the Orange Tree in Richmond and the Union in Southwark. The first has a welcoming, efficient bar with a useful and tempting sweetie counter, excellent FOH and of course a splendid proximity to pubs and restaurants within a ten minute radius of Richmond Green and the centre of the town. 

And the Union, while it is amazingly smelly and deeply dodgy in the comfort department, does exude the sort of defiant, down-at-heel racketiness of how real fringe theatres used to be. The current show, Short and Sweet, is also treasurably awful for once, instead of aspiring to the lower reaches of the musical theatre industry.

Going to the theatre is a social experience, and the Orange Tree, despite often resembling a stop off point for Saga Holidays, goes out of its way to try and provide that for every audience, every night of the week. To a lesser extent, the Union does the same for its more flea-bitten clientele; it could still do with a bit more of a jolly-up.

Seeing the hand-me-down experimental version of Anna Karenina last night reminded me not only of a much better production, but of its place of origin. This was the Glasgow Citizens in 1987, when Philip Prowse's staging of Robert David MacDonald's adaptation told the story from the point of view of Anna's abandoned son, the child of the loveless marriage she exchanged in her passion for Vronsky.

This son was now a doorkeeper at his own ancestral home, which had been converted into a post-Revolutionary museum, through which five different Annas floated like ghosts of memory, dream and illusion.

It was a heart-breakingly beautiful scenario. And it had started in the foyer, where Giles Havergal and his team always welcomed the audience more or less in person, inducting them into a magic house of delights and possibilities. Something special was always about to happen.

It's a little bit of that which Mehmet needs to import to set off his wonderful new "found" theatre space inside. And Dominic Hill, taking up the reins at the Glasgow Citizens in October, will be aware, too, of what has lately gone sadly missing in the Gorbals.


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