Theatre has always thrived in London. Perhaps, it’s the dismal weather that causes Londoners to seek indoor entertainment. It may also be responsible for driving us to drink. So combining two of our favourite pastimes in the theatre pub seems a natural idea. London theatre pubs put on thousands of plays every month in rooms above, below, beyond or within their bars. Spectators feel as though they are in the thick of the action rather than observing it from afar and they get the chance to watch experimental, idiosyncratic performances.
London theatre pubs are not new. The first one, The King’s Head in Islington, has been showcasing some of the capital’s finest theatrical talent since 1970. You can get a pint in the bar downstairs before heading upstairs to catch an intimate performance lit by Victorian gas-lights. Other longstanding pubs with theatres attached include the Rosemary Branch in Hackney and the Finborough in Earls Court.
But the Shunt Lounge in London Bridge has given pub theatre a new twist. Open Wednesday to Saturday every week, it hosts performance, music, film and installation from Shunt, a collective of ten artists. The Shunt Lounge is located in a cavernous wine vault below London Bridge Station at the end of a dimly lit tunnel through an unmarked door.
It is a different experience every time you go. One night you might stumble across a pirate ship or giant playground complete with a sandpit; another night you might catch aerial performance artists duelling overhead. At present, the website strongly warns punters against wearing flip flops or flimsy footwear in case of accidents. For several years Shunt remained one of London’s best kept secrets but nowadays if you don’t get there by 8pm on Saturdays you will find queues snaking round the corner.
But despite the success of The Shunt Lounge, the future of London’s theatre pubs is uncertain. London pubs are coming increasingly under threat from cheap supermarket alcohol with one closing every other day. If they continue to close at the same rate then The Times newspaper predicts that they will all be boarded up by 2037. Furthermore, many pub theatre directors are struggling to finance their venues since losing their grants during the tough economic times.
So, next time you’re at a loose end in London why not pay a visit to a theatre pub? It’ll give you a unique, thrilling experience for a relatively low cost. And you’ll be helping to ensure the survival of our historical drinking haunts.
Some of the best theatre pubs include: