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Fringe Focus – The King’s Head Theatre

Welcome to another instalment of an occasional feature showcasing and celebrating the most interesting fringe venues I have visited across London. If you would like your theatre represented here, please let me know, and if I haven’t already been to see you, I will make it my mission to do so.

The second of my Fringe Focus features takes me to Islington, a few miles north of the city, and to the King’s Head Theatre, a long-standing space behind a pub on Upper Street. I asked the theatre to answer some questions on this iconic space, which I visited earlier this year to see This Island’s Mine and Southern Belles.

Exterior of the King's Head Pub and Theatre
Exterior of the King’s Head Pub and Theatre

Interview with Germma Orleans-Thompson, Marketing Assistant

The Kings Head Theatre is quite an iconic fringe venue. What would you say was its USP within the London theatre scene?

We give a platform to emerging companies and artists in addition to our new writing festival Playmill which allows them to showcase their work in a London venue. Due to our Equity fringe agreement, everyone at the King’s Head Theatre both on and off stage must be paid a legal wage which we are very proud of and keen to see more theatres sign up to.

The performance space is quite small, but with a lot of possibilities. What has been your favourite show to stage there, and what was special about it?

Southern Belles has been my favourite show at the King’s Head Theatre as I believe it celebrates what we do best; discovering hidden gems from the past and making great LGBT theatre. Tennessee Williams is one of the greatest playwrights of all time, and so much of his work remains unknown.

There are a few theatres based in Islington pubs. What makes yours different, and do you have opportunities for mutual support and collaboration?

Apart from being the first pub theatre in London since Shakespeare’s time [founded in 1970], bringing opera to a more accessible, small scale space is something that we have pioneered. We love our neighbours and would love to work more collaboratively going forward.

You programme a fair amount of LGBTQ theatre, including the current Queer Season. Do you see the King’s Head as an important venue for shows like these?

Yes, the King’s Head Theatre has championed LGBTQIA+ work since early in our history and continue to do. We gave a safe space to shows that did not have anywhere else to go and we have retained that through till now. It’s especially needed now at a time where so many other LGBTQIA+ venues are closing.

What has been your biggest challenge when programming theatre for the space?

We have so many applications from wonderful shows that it’s hard to fit as many of them in as we would like!

What can we expect from the King’s Head for the future?

More fabulous operas, more excellent LGBTQIA+ work and more of the shows that you know and love in a brand new venue!

You don’t receive revenue from the pub in which you are based, but rather rent the space: how can audiences and theatre-lovers support your theatre going forward?

First and foremost; buy a ticket! Ticket sales make up a large part of our revenue and you can never underestimate the power of spreading the word of a brilliant show!

Interior of the King's Head Theatre
Interior of the King’s Head Theatre

My thanks to Germma.

I would like to add that the King’s Head Theatre is currently looking to move to new premises behind the current space, and are seeking additional funding to ensure this happens in 2020. Although I am quite fond of the 110-seat space which currently exists, a new space is Islington Square will be quite exciting, and will boast a larger auditorium and a smaller studio theatre.

Outside the King's Head Pub and Theatre, Upper Street
Outside the King’s Head Pub and Theatre, Upper Street

Southern Belles (King’s Head)

Tennessee Williams was a dramatic big hitter, with regular revivals of his major plays including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Glass Menagerie and Night of the Iguana (which is currently running in the West End).

Southern Belles collates two of his lesser-known one-act plays, chosen to kickstart the King’s Head Theatre’s Queer Season. At 35 and 45 minutes respectively these are little precious nuggets, studies of love and loneliness.

Annabel Leventon in Something Unspoken

The duo of plays opens with Something Unspoken, in which society lesbian Cordelia (a regally poised Annabel Leventon) co-habits in an uncomfortable existence with her mousy companion and secretary of some years, Grace (Fiona Marr).

Cordelia seeks both the approval of her peers in local office, and the affection of the woman she loves so dearly she fills her room with roses, one for each year of their shared friendship.

Fiona Marr in Something Unspoken

Unspoken, of course, and unwanted by Grace, a widow who is so awed by her employer she compares their shades of grey – Cordelia like the Emperor Tiberius with her strength, Grace like a cobweb or something white that is soiled.

Leventon and Marr make the most of material which appears thin at first, but begins to show hidden depths as the play progresses. In the end, it is only in notes of music and petals of a rose that the ladies can truly communicate, with the pain in their eyes sadly evident.

Luke Mullins in And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens

After the interval it is the turn of And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens, ignored and unproduced in Williams’ lifetime, and proving to be an astonishing and brutally honest study of unrequited gay love.

Candy (Luke Mullins) has picked up Karl (George Fletcher), a sailor, in a known gay bar. Candy is effeminate, trusting, loving, and naive, while Karl is full of self-loathing of himself and the weakness he shrugs off by abusing Candy mentally and physically.

Luke Mullins and George Fletcher in And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens

Mullins’s performance as the play progresses and Candy’s drag sweetness descends into a desperation to be noticed no matter what the cost is a revelation, and certainly one of the best I have seen this year.

Whether describing his collection of negligees (“all rainbow colours”), reading a poem about “queens and misfits”, clinging to the fiction of his perfect “marriage” with the married man who seduced and mentored him, then left for “a new chick”, or playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the quietly violent Karl, Mullins makes Candy a towering, tragic figure.

Michael Burrows, Luke Mullins, Ben Chinapen in And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens

Where Something Unspoken deals with gay love in a somewhat genteel way, Queens is brutal and devastating, even more so when you realise it was written in 1955. These are real characterisations in all their rawness.

Cordelia and Candy are both cut from the same cloth – both predatory, a bit sad, a bit lost. It is clear why director Jamie Armitage has chosen to revive them as a pair, and quite right that Queens runs last.

The use of music is also interesting, with Ben Chinapen’s ethereal vocals introducing each play with carefully curated pieces by Noel Coward and Harry Warren.

Southern Belles continues at the King’s Head until 24 August.

This Island’s Mine (King’s Head Theatre)

Some revivals feel more relevant than others, and Philip Osment’s 1980s depiction of gay life in London certainly has 21st century echoes, with two hate crimes in the last week and calls within Birmingham schools to stop discussing homosexual relationships with pupils.

It’s 1988, Section 28 is in effect, newspapers are scaremongering about AIDS, and young Luke, seventeen, is wondering how to tell his mum that he fancies boys.

Jane Bertish, Theo Fraser Steele and company of This Island's Mine

Jane Bertish, Theo Fraser Steele and company of This Island’s Mine

Osment’s play flits across time, space and setting, utilising a lot of third person narration and a complex dramatic timeline to bring stories together.

With no clear dictate on sets, Ardent Theatre have created their own idea of a basic set and props, and let words and imagination do the rest: so we are in the school, the kitchen, the restaurant, the disco, the theatre, the ramshackle house, the estate, the armchair in the attic, the park, the airport, and the 70s pride march.

Connor Bannister as Luke

Connor Bannister as Luke

The actors, too, have more than one character to play in most cases, sometimes leaving the stage in one guise to reappear in the next scene as someone totally different. As the Q&A which followed the performance made clear, this required a lot of collaboration backstage between the actors to help with quick costume changes.

This Island’s Mine tells many stories – Martin (Luke’s uncle), Mark (a chef who gets fired due to hysteria about spreading disease), Marianne (Martin’s wife of convenience) and her partner Debbie (and Debbie’s young son Dave), Marianne’s father Stephen (implicated in the export of infected blood), Jody (black, with a secret of her own from America), Selwyn (Mark’s partner, actor, hassled by police), Miss Rosenblum (Martin’s landlady, lost wartime romance), and more.

Rachel Summers and Corey Montague-Sholay as Debbie and Dave

Rachel Summers and Corey Montague-Sholay as Debbie and Dave

This places heavy demands on both cast and director – and although Osment was able to have some input and see the first performance before his recent death, his involvement was not as close as it was in the original Gay Sweatshop production.

There’s a cat, too, who links Miss Rosenblum with the Russian princess she was once companion to. He’s a plot catalyst as well as a silent narrator to the house in which Luke sleeps his first dreams of love. He’s seen as a bundle of multicolored wool – a kind of rainbow Bagpuss.

Theo Fraser Steele and Connor Bannister as Martin and Luke

Theo Fraser Steele and Connor Bannister as Martin and Luke

Philip Wilson directs, but it was clear from the Q&A that this revival was a company creation, exploring both text and setting. Wilson created a timeline which tied together the dramatic events depicted with those which happened, historically, around them, taking the cue that Martin was born in 1950 and so would have been Luke’s age at the time of decriminalization of gay activity.

Eighteen characters, seven cast members. A timespan of over forty years. Uncomprehending fathers (Frank, Stephen), issues of age and race, unrequited love. Children growing and finding their feet (Luke, Dave). Key scenes from The Tempest, Caliban, Prospero.

Rachel Summers, Rebecca Todd, Jane Bertish,  Connor Bannister, Tom Ross-Williams, Corey Montague-Sholay Theo Fraser Steele and director Philip Wilson at the Q&A,

Rachel Summers, Rebecca Todd, Jane Bertish, Connor Bannister, Tom Ross-Williams, Corey Montague-Sholay Theo Fraser Steele and director Philip Wilson at the Q&A,

This is a pertinent revival from a talented group of actors and creatives. It was a privilege to watch them perform in this thought-provoking piece, and to hear their short discussion afterwards – the “jumble sale” of discarded costumes backstage, the need to project as the theatre “soaks up sound”, their own memories or knowledge of the reality of gay life in 1988.

This Island’s Mine ran at the King’s Head Theatre until 8 June. I saw the penultimate performance.

Production photo credits Mark Douet.

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