Visitors flock to London's famous theaters, but few take advantage of the capital's pub theaters. And yet this form of entertainment is one of the most exciting kinds of live theater available in the UK today.
The majority of London's pubs are hundreds of years old. The buildings once held upstairs breweries or had large numbers of rooms to rent to travelers. As those uses began to die out - especially during the 20th century - pub landlords looked around for new ways to earn money from their large amounts of empty space.
Since pubs and theater have always been closely associated in London, creating small, intimate theater and cabaret spaces seemed natural.
How it All Began
The modern pub theater is a relatively new phenomenon but it has a very old pedigree. Inn yard theaters, common in Shakespeare's day but much older, were the first enclosed performance spaces.
From the early Middle Ages, actors and musicians traveled around the country in troupes, putting up in travelers' inns and taverns - the forerunners of pubs - when they stopped to perform. If an inn's landlord allowed them to put on shows in his coach yard, he could charge playgoers to enter the yard. He could charge the public even more to go up to the covered balconies or galleries, a common pub feature through the 18th century. (Check out the National Trust owned George Inn in Southwark. Built in 1677 it's London's last galleried pub.) And of course he could sell food and ale.
By the Elizabethan era, the first purpose-built theaters using the galleried and enclosed yard model - like Shakespeare's Globe Theatre - were being built and the tavern theater soon died out.
London Pub Theaters Today
Westminster walking guide and London blogger Joanna Moncrieff says that the King's Head in Islington, founded in 1970, is most likely the first pub theater since Shakespearean times.
It established the model for the typical London pub theater of today in a room above - or occasionally below the pub itself. Seating areas are small - often holding fewer than 60 people - and the space between the audience and the actors is minuscule. If the thought of an actor playing his heart out while staring you in the face from a distance of about four feet is more than you can handle, pub theater may not be for you.
But if you relish the chance of seeing brand new or rarely performed plays, featuring actors whose talent may still be a bit raw, in spaces often no bigger than some people's living rooms, this is a kind of London theater you should not miss. And you might even have a close encounter with a familiar face, or a star. Pub theater audiences are full of actors, drama students, theater aficionados, directors and casting agents hunting for new playwriting and acting talent.
How to See a Play in a Pub
- Check out what's on in pub theaters by picking up a listing magazine like Time Out. Don't bother looking up the magazine online - you have to see the print version for the full listings. It's free and available at Tube stations on Mondays or at dozens of locations all over London. It's very likely you'll find it at your hotel, or check Time Out's online list of distribution points for the print magazine.
- Usually, there's some kind of capsule description or review, but pub theater tickets are generally under £20 so it's easy - and more-fun to take a chance.
- You may want to book your tickets in advance to collect before the show. If you can, it's a good idea to get your tickets in advance for the most popular shows. Otherwise, just show up on time on the night and get in the queue to buy a ticket.
- Be prepared to travel beyond the normal theatre district familiar to tourists. There are only a few Central London pub theaters. The Finborough, the Kings Head and the Old Red Lion are among them. (See the list below). Most others are slightly outside of the center and may involve a bus trip.
- Because of the licensing laws in the UK, some smaller theater pubs operate as clubs. You have to join them to see a play. You can usually join that sort of pub theater for a few pounds, when you buy your ticket.
- Pub theater is not dinner theater although some pubs that have theaters also serve food. If you'd like to eat, arrive early enough to have a meal in the pub before the play starts. The play itself will not be in the pub but in a room above it or in a basement.
- Order your interval (intermission) drinks before you go into the theater if you can because the crush at the bar will be intense later on.
- When the play is about to begin, and when the interval is about to end, the pub landlord will ring a bell in the pub, giving you about five minutes advance warning to get to your seat.
List of London Pub Theaters
You can never tell, far in advance, what might be scheduled in London's pub theaters. As a start, check out these links to some of London's most popular ones.
- Above the Lord Stanley Pub This is a tiny venue (30 seats) above a Camden town pub that's protected from development by the Asset of Community Value designation. It has sporadic performances - comedy nights, music. Check the pub website or ring up (0207 284 3266) to see if anything is going on in the theater space above the pub.
- Above the Stag This is the UK's only professional LGBT+ theater. It's now in the Vauxhall area and, in 2016, is in the running for a Time Out Love London award. Pre-show meals are served at the bar.
- The Barons Court Theatre at the Curtains Up pub. This 60 seat venue in the vaults below the pub presents a mix of about 70% classics - The House of Bernarda Alba, The Good Person of Szechuan - and 30% new work. The bar serves food for a pre-theater meal.
- The Canal Café Theatre a comedy venue above the Bridge Pub in Little Venice. On the edge of Regents Canal, they've been hosting comedy reviews and little known revivals since 1979. It's the home of the New Review, a show that holds the Guinness World Record as the world's longest running comedy review. It's on after the other performances, late night, 4 days a week, 50 weeks a year.
- The Etcetera above the Oxford Arms on Camden High Street. The Guardian calls this one of London's best pub theaters. It's a founding member of the Camden Fringe and hosts the London Horror Festival. Watch out of the Black Box festival, a three week event every year when visiting companies are offered the state for free, in exchange for a box office split. It's a chance to see fresh new ideas on stage - some great, some dire.
- The Finborough Tiny but mighty, this theater above a pub not far from Earl's Court Station, emphasizes "thought provoking text-based new writing as well as ... genuinely neglected works from the 19th and 20th centuries.The theater has been more of a constant in this area than the pub below it but now under independent management, the pub is on the up and a great place to try local craft beers.
- The Gate Theatre Notting Hill Another of London's earliest pub theaters, the emphasis is on international work and "neglected international classics." It's a 75-seater that regularly punches above its weight. Not to be confused with the Gate Cinema, an art house movie theater, also in Notting Hill.
- The Hen &Chickens Comedy and theater in a Victorian Pub in Highbury at the northern end of Islington. This pub theater is run as a proper theater club. If you want to know what's on, you have to join up, ring them on 020 7354 8246 or follow them on Facebook.
- The King's Head There's been a pub here since 1547 and a theater since 1970. The focus these days is on new writing and "critical theatrical revivals". There is also a schedule of musical productions and chamber opera. The theater operates an award winning trainee director program and many of its graduates have gone on to considerable success.
- The Landor A 60-seater above a Clapham pub in South London, this theater focuses on musical productions in an intimate environment.
- The Latchmere/Theatre 503 formerly The Gate at The Latchmere, in Battersea. As one of London's original group of pub theaters, this venue has been producing new writing for more than 30 years. Twice a year, their Second Look program revives a groundbreaking but overlooked play from the 1980s or 90s.
- The Old Red Lion Around for 30 years and one of London's most respected pub theaters, this Islington pub, near the Angel Tube Station, has seen transfers to London's West End and Off-Broadway.
- Pentameters - Above the Horseshoe Pub in Hampstead Village.Around since 1968, this respected theater has staged hundreds of plays and featured many of the top stars of London theater. It is a cross between a pub theater and a producing company. This 60-seat theater is still run by its founding artistic director, Léonie Scott-Matthews.
- The Rosemary Branch On the border of Hackney and Islington, this was once a proper Victorian music hall, with performers such as Charlie Chaplin and Marie Lloyd treading the boards. Currently managed by a transatlantic team, it presents an eclectic mix of music and theater, encouraging "emerging" talent.
- The Tabard Popular with West London audiences, the Tabard has been a small but important fixture on the London fringe scene for more than 30 years. Today it presents a mixture of live entertainment - revivals, adaptations, music and comedy.
- Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate Village. This is a very old, picturesque pub. It's earliest mention in records is in 1670 but it's 19th century owners claimed it had been a pub from 1337. It's auditorium dates from 1895 and has served as a music hall, a jazz club, a folk club (once hosting Simon and Garfunkel). It is the northernmost pub in Camden and London's highest theater, at 446 feet above sea level. At 140 seats, this is larger than many fringe or pub theaters and its productions tend to be more commercial, focusing on musical theater. It's production of Avenue Q was awarded best Off West End Production in the Mousetrap awards in 2014.
- The White Bear Theatre Club Focusing on new writing and "lost classics" this South London theater and pub re-opened in October 2016 with a new purpose built theater and brand new bar serving pre and post-theater food and drink. Tickets for the 2016 season are currently on sale on the website and include a lost play by Orson Wells and a play set in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing.
More Fringe Theatres
Not all London's independent theatres are in pubs. Some fill converted warehouses, rooms above cafes and other odd. Some, like The Almeida, The Donmar Warehouse and the Young Vic showcase stars alongside new writing and talent. Others are more experimental and potentially more exciting:
- Arcola Theatre
- Battersea Arts Centre
- The Bush
- Camden People's Theatre
- The Courtyard Theatre
- The Hampstead Theatre
- Jermyn Street
- The Lyric Hammersmith
- Menier Chocolate Factory
- The Orange Tree
- The Oval House
- The Pleasance
- The Print Room
- The Soho Theatre
- Southwark Playhouse
- Theatre Royal Stratford East
- The Tricycle
- The Union Theatre