LONDON — It's Saturday afternoon in the jam-packed Old Red Lion on London's shopper-crowded St. John Street. Beer-fueled chatter — including some salty heckles — ricochets off the TV screens, while the pub's lone server pours pints of frothy ale in double-quick time. Local soccer team Arsenal is playing, and the game isn't going well.
Nestled among the red-shirted lager lovers are several quiet imbibers, their tables topped with glasses of wine and the occasional well-thumbed paperback. They don't seem to know there's a game on. The reason? This is a pub with two sets of regulars, and the second group is waiting patiently for the matinee performance of "The Revenger's Tragedy" upstairs in the tiny theater.
London is crammed with old-school pubs, several dozen of which are also part of a lesser-known theatrical tradition. Since Shakespeare's time, greasepaint-loving taverns across the city have adapted their spare rooms to host performances for patrons who like to catch a show or two without moving too far from their favorite bar taps.
A permanent fringe movement, this eclectic pub-theater scene thrives, with Londoners and savvy visitors regularly squeezing into 50-seat studios for dramas, comedies, musicals and even operas. And although tickets rarely top $25, quality isn't sacrificed:
Today, squinting at photos of shows past on the Old Red Lion's walls, I don't spot any Winslets or Rickmans among the stills from "Diary of a Madman" and "The Importance of Being Earnest." But because it's almost 3 p.m., it's time to join the line climbing the carpeted stairs to the theater. Shuffling in, I slide onto a bench in front of the stageless performance area.
Two feet away, a spotlighted actor, studiously ignoring the audience, is doing push-ups. It's like being a fly on the wall while someone goes about his daily business. The raucous pub downstairs is soon forgotten as the doors quietly close and the enveloping silence creates nervous expectation.
There's just time to read the program and discover this actor's extensive résumé of movies, TV shows and stage productions before the house lights drop and we're plunged right in. Watching a play in a theater this small is like being in one of those theme-park flight simulators where you feel every forceful action.
Today's story of betrayal and murderous intent, written by Thomas Middleton in the early 1600s and echoing some of Shakespeare's racier plays, has been updated to the 1980s. Because the space is so tiny, the violence is heightened by proximity. We're so close to the action that when one character lights a cigarette, half the audience coughs.
The staging is sparse, with black walls, a table and several TV screens compensating for the absence of scenery. But it's the frenetic, sometimes vein-popping acting that makes this so gripping, especially during a couple of gruesome death scenes.
At intermission, I unclench my body and stumble downstairs. I could use a drink before Round 2.
Die-hard fans say it's this intimacy and involvement with the performances that lure them to pub theaters. A week later, ahead of me in the Friday night staircase queue at west London's Finborough Theatre are Gene and Ruth Yonuschot of Chapel Hill, N.C., who have been immersing themselves in London's theaters for decades.
The National, Royal Court and Donmar Warehouse appeal to their avant-garde tastes, but these days they also save time for pub venues on their regular visits. And the Finborough, tucked above a wine bar on an anonymous residential street, is a long-established favorite.
"We were looking for something on a Sunday 15 years ago, and we took a gamble on this place," Ruth says as we file in to snag our cushioned bench seats. "The performances were incredible, and we've been here about 10 times since.
Her husband adds, "These smaller theaters are just brilliant, and we tell people about them all the time. So long as you do your research and know where the pubs are and which Tube stop or bus route to take, they are always worth it."
Tonight's performance is much less physical than "The Revenger's Tragedy." But while the play, "A Life" by Hugh Leonard, starts gently, I'm soon riveted by the bittersweet story of an old man recalling the missed opportunities and failed relationships of his life. It's complete with flashback scenes of his younger self, and it's surprisingly moving and feels, at times, like a Beckett or Pinter play.
The performances, especially from rain-coated veteran Hugh Ross (who has appeared in hundreds of professional productions and films as diverse as
Later, strolling the rain-slicked streets to the Earl's Court Underground station, I mull how these greasepaint taverns differ from the larger London theaters I typically attend. There's one crucial distinction.
My budget usually allows me to sit in the nosebleed sections of large auditoriums, where it's easy to feel like a disinterested spectator. But in pub theaters, there are few bad seats, and the in-your-face approach means you can't avoid feeling connected to the story and the actors relating it. Which is why on my next trip I'll be back in search of the next generation of Winslets and Rickmans.