London Pub Theatres

I write for London Pub Theatres Magazine

April 2020

THEATRE AND THE PLAGUE Not dead only resting

by playwright David Weir

… there’s space to write, and there’s time to read and learn, and as unkind friends have told me there’s the chance, at last, to prove that I love theatre more than I love pubs.

A shi y character in a dodgy hat and a suit of clothes that haven’t seen a wash in few weeks too many scuttles through the London streets around the Rose Theatre, eyes darting from side to side for fear his creditors will lay eyes, and then heavy hands, upon him.

He’s out of cash, again, his playwright’s too distracted by love, again, to finish his script, and the Lord Chamberlain’s just closed all the playhouses, again, because of the plague. In other words, it’s business as usual in the world of the theatre of the 1580s for the impresario Mr Philip Henslowe in Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love.

And for all of us who, 440 or so years later, make any part of our living from the drama, Mr Henslowe’s plight remains the reality, even if his boundless optimism that all will turn out well before he has his feet burned and his nose cut o can be hard to summon right now.

“How will you pay” asks Mr Fennyman. “I don’t know” says Henslowe “It’s a mystery”.

Somehow it does all turn out for the best in Henslowe’s best of all possible worlds, and the cash-strapped theatre staggers on for another year to another crisis. A er all, Shakespeare managed to bang out King Lear while he was locked down during one of his plague years (a mixed blessing, I grant, for all those fourth-formers who’ve had it imposed on them when too young to care for blustering old men).

The solution to our own mystery is yet to unravel.

My personal curtain fell on 14 March, half- way through a short run of The Way to a Man’s Heart, my Canadian debut – and thank you, thank you to the splendid Gabriola Players of British Columbia who made it through enough performances to let me put that on the CV and pay for a half- case of claret, already largely and cheerfully consigned to the recycling bin of history. But what for people as fortunately situated as I am is a sadness and an inconvenience is the barrel of a gun for the vast majority of our fellows who’ve seen their work fall o a cli , their futures become an empty canvas.

I’ve friends who’ve been furloughed, I’ve friends who’ve been fired. I’ve no idea how the pub theatres that have been the lifeblood of London’s Theatre this last decade and more will be able to get the show back on the road when all this is over.

And how, if they don’t, the bigger theatre will find the talent, the actors, the writers, the creatives, the technicians that rep used to feed through the system and that pub now provides on tap.

July 2015 performance of David Weir’s THE WAY TO A MAN’S HEART

The outlook’s as bleak as it’s ever been and more than a few of us are probably wishing we’d listened when we asked some seasoned actor for advice and they said “Become a lawyer”.

This crisis, which came on us out of the blue, will be the death knell for some of the pub theatres we’ve grown to love. Some simply will not be able to ride the months with no show, no audience, and above all not even the income that somehow kept them afloat in ‘normal’ times.

Theatre has, of course, coped in earlier times with unexpected closure – in the plague years of the 17th century for example, travelling companies were able to get out of the bigger towns and cities and set up in local areas, an option available neither legally nor culturally in a 21st century that’s long le behind the vagabond players of old and that might prefer home movie night with Deliveroo to a draughty heath or village hall.

In the last 100 years or so, the two World Wars had di erent e ects on theatre – in the first, the shows stayed open, almost as a patriotic duty to demonstrate that fear would not drive us into the dark, even though there were Zeppelin raids that disrupted performances, for example at the Old Vic. It’s a remarkable fact that audiences none the less kept turning up, and sometimes sat on through the raids until performances resumed on the all-clear.

The ‘Spanish’ flu that followed that war (it’s unlucky for Spain that it carries the title just because it was more open than anyone else about the massive death rates being su ered from 1917 as a pandemic swept most of the world) posed a similar challenge to our own coronavirus.

Unlike today, there was no order to close the theatres, or much else – and the death toll was far higher than anything we’re imagining right now, which may be a handy reminder that the strictness of what we’re going through does have a purpose.

The Second World War, with far greater air power at the enemy disposal, was another matter again – the injunction to put the lights out did mean quiet theatres, with an order to close them all issued as the war began in September 1939.

“I can’t do anything but act, what is to become of me” lamented Dame Edith Evans, a sentiment many of us may less histrionically be agreeing with right now. The Government quickly relented to pressure and allowed limited opening, enabling Dame Edith once more to brandish her handbag as Lady Bracknell within a month, with audiences some way o capacity but consistently present.

Bombing raids inevitably meant more temporary closures throughout the war (though the Windmill Theatre famously never closed, o ering its popular brand of comedy and smut throughout the emergency).

Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell in THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST

Since 1945, there have been other disruptions – theatre by candlelight in the three-day week of the early 1970s, closures and reluctant audiences during IRA bombing campaigns in London. Restrictions on movement during the foot and mouth outbreak led to some closures in the early 2000s, and, of course, nothing opened in London the night a er the underground was bombed in 2005, though audiences were back, if not in full number, the very next day.

There has, though, been nothing as total as the current crisis, which is what makes the future so fearful. All the above examples show that while theatre may not attract all the people at times of crisis, it can attract enough to keep alive. One of the many troubles with the present crisis, though, is that capacity itself is restricted by the need to keep whatever audience there is safely isolated in two-metre bubbles.

There are actors – and future actors – now looking for any work in any trade anywhere they can find it. There are plays not being written, there are shows that will never be performed, there are careers that will never happen. The road not taken.

There are Government schemes for those furloughed (a maximum £2,500 a month must look attractive to a fair few theatre practitioners), a distant echo, perhaps, of the payments Parliament voted to cover lost earnings for elite acting companies such as The King’s Men in the 17th century.

Without royal or aristocratic patrons these days, though, most theatre professionals are self- employed, and there’s some help for those, too, though the Society of Authors identifies the average earnings of a writer at around £10,500 a year, and how little pub theatre actors earn is anyone’s guess. These schemes are welcome lifelines, but even for professionals who were never in it for the money, not enough to keep the flame alight.

The fear, I guess, is that audiences won’t be back this time – that the risk of human contact and the need for social distancing will glue us to Netflix rather than risk anything from a 50- seater and an experimental two-actor show to a West End spectacle. (And yes, I’ve heard all the jokes now about how my kind of show won’t need social distancing for the half dozen diehards who come watch them).

But theatre will, collectively, if not for every practitioner, every building, survive. Because theatre always does, because the primal need for story – telling it, in words or in actions, and hearing and seeing it told – does not die, even if, at times, it has to be second to our need for food, for a roof, for warmth.

We’re social beasts, we humans, which is why we love stories, and have since our ancestors gathered round a fire in ancient Greece to listen to Homer’s tales of heroes crossing wine- dark seas. We need story, we need human contact, we need tales that touch our hearts even as we rub shoulders with strangers.

We will return to the box o ice once it’s able to open again. We will queue for over-priced, over-warm white wine, dammit, even as the interval bell rings the fourth time. We will shell out four quid for a programme and forget to read it and leave it under our seat.

We must, in the meantime, take what opportunities we can. We must keep up our skills – as a writer, I can write, even if there’s no-one clamouring for new plays at the moment (in my head, in the glory days before March, they were hammering my door down!) and the month-end royalty statements contain very round numbers indeed.

There’s certainly the space to do it – locked down at home, the desk is bare, the laptop’s waiting, there’s no excuse for indolence. It’s time to remember what that pre-eminent Broadway and West End farceur PG Wodehouse called the essential talent of any writer – to apply a bit of chewing gum to the seat of the chair.

It may be myth, it may be legend (and writers live on making stu up so let’s go with it), but Victor Hugo is supposed, in order to force himself to pick up his pen, to have ordered his servant to lock him naked in his room so that he couldn’t leave and had nothing to do but write. If that produced the thousand pages of Les Misérables and, distantly, one of the most successful shows in the history of British theatre, then there is something to be said for privation, even if going the full Victor Hugo may not be advisable in the era of the Zoom call to your agent.

If Covid-19 can be the malign metaphorical equivalent of that servant locking us in our rooms, then actors can practice their skills in online readings, writers can write and producers can read and read and read, and plan what extravaganzas the public will need when all this is over and we can breathe again. We can all do the work. The glory’s nice, the money’s essential, the camaraderie of joint production is fun. But the work’s what makes it all worth it, and what drives us to do it, isn’t it?

So there’s space to write, and there’s time to read and learn, and as unkind friends have told me there’s the chance, at last, to prove that I love theatre more than I love pubs. But, of course, being human, we’re never content that what we once dreamed of is given us.

“You’ll have the time of your life” says Lucy, to Geo rey, her old colleague on the newspaper who’s shortly to retire in Michael Frayn’s ALPHABETICAL ORDER. “Bit of peace and quiet at last”.

“That’s what we all want – a bit of peace and quiet” says Geo rey. “The only thing we don’t want is a lot of peace and quiet.”

Peace and quiet’s been our lot for 80-plus days now since the theatres closed, and no sign of curtain up again any time soon, even if, we have to hope, the future’s not quite as bleak as it is for poor old Geo rey.

I can’t think of a single pub theatre that actually uses a curtain, but, metaphor or cliché, it will rise once again. We’ll have lost friends, talents. We’ll have lost spaces we love. We’ll have lost shows never written or cancelled or swept away in the storm. But there will be new shows, new talents, new spaces. The urge to create is too strong to be destroyed. The plague will li from all our houses.

“How will you pay” asks Mr Fennyman, back in Shakespeare in Love again, holding his knife to Henslowe’s nose. “I don’t know” says Henslowe “It’s a mystery.”

But pay he does. The show goes on.

Read David Weir’s article PLAYS SET IN A PUB >

DAVID WEIR is a London-based Scottish playwright. Plays include Confessional (Oran Mor, Glasgow) and Better Together (Brockley Jack, London). Confessional won the SCDA prize for Best Depiction of Scottish Life and Character at the 87th Annual One-Act Play Festival in 2018. Other awards include: the Constance Cox Award and the Write Now Festival Award. Legacy and Better Together were both long listed for the Bruntwood Prize. Lions of England is published by Stagescripts Ltd. Confessional is published by Spotlight Publications.

© 2020 All Rights Reserved | London Pub Theatres Magazine Limited 5 June 2020



January 2019

‘A man walks into a bar’

PLAYS SET IN A PUB by David Weir

A man walks into a bar. It’s the opening line of a hundred hoary old gags, but it’s also the launchpad for some of the world’s finest plays. David Weir takes a look at when pub theatre is also theatre set in a pub.

Pub. 1977. Spring

Harold Pinter, never a one to waste a word, opens Betrayal with that splendidly bare stage direction.
Sean O’Casey more loquaciously provides 22 lines to describe a ‘commodious public-house’ complete with beer-pulls, glasses and a carafe, and tall windows, a box-like snug and a shelf on which men may rest their drinks in The Plough and the Stars.

Whatever the challenges playwrights present to set designers down the years, one thing is clear. The pub has been for many the ideal setting for plays and key scenes.
Think of Falsta swigging sack or Je rey Bernard being unwell. Here’s Hickey revealing why the Iceman Cometh. There’s Valerie scaring the bejasus out of four grown men in Conor McPherson’s The Weir simply by telling them the truth.

So here are six simple rules for how pub theatre really works.

1. Be Irish

While national stereotyping’s never a happy place to go, there’s little point denying that the Irish pub is one of the Emerald Isle’s major contributions to world culture, and its probably no coincidence that Guinness, Jamieson’s and Bushmills flow more than most through the literature of the saloon bar.

Probably the best pub-set play of the 21st century so far is Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen. The 1990s gave us Conor McPherson’s eerie The Weir.
Admittedly neither Keith Waterhouse (playwright) nor Je rey Bernard (real life journalist on whom Waterhouse based his play) was born further west than Leeds, but sticking Peter O’Toole in the title role of Je rey Bernard Is Unwell filled the gap for the 1980s.

Add Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and The Stars and JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, and well, you get the idea. For the Irish Rover, the whiskey’s in the jar.
Curiously enough, perhaps the quintessential Irish pub play is by an American – though the fact that his name’s Eugene O’Neill suggests the apple hadn’t fallen too far from the tree.

The Iceman Cometh is entirely set in a bar full of men who spin tall stories about the lives they would lead if they weren’t propping up a bar. Into their midst comes Hickey, the travelling salesman who sees the wider world and gives them hope that their dreams might come true if they’d only step beyond the saloon door. But Hickey, of course, has feet of clay, living himself on a cloud of illusion.

The template’s familiar from plenty more – McPherson’s lonely drinkers spin ghost stories to entertain a newcomer in The Weir. McDonagh’s antihero boasts to the collection of losers in the pub he runs of his status as England’s second most famous hangman, all the while resenting his rival Albert Pierrepoint.

2. Be a man

Not to be sexist, but the literature of the pub has more than a whi of testosterone to it, as the previous paragraphs may hint.
Ever since Falsta sat qua ing sack in the Boar’s Head, the role of women in pubs has been mostly confined to jolly barmaids (from Mistress Quickly to Bet Lynch and Peggy Mitchell) or prostitutes (see Eugene O’Neill again), if they appear at all.

Even when women write the plays, the girls are usually the other side of the bar (the Shakers half of John Godber and Jane Thornton’s Bouncers/Shakers, for example). More o en, it’s all about blokes, usually friendless blokes drinking a drink they call loneliness ‘cos it’s better than drinking alone (thanks, Billy Joel, for that one).

On the other hand, the unexpected presence of a non-serving woman in a bar can therefore be the most extraordinary thing to happen in the hands of a brilliant playwright.
Conor McPherson’s The Weir has four lonely men in a lonely rural bar telling ever-taller ghost stories to impress sophisticated Dubliner Valerie, possibly the only woman ever to walk into their taproom. When she entirely accidentally turns the tables by telling them a heart-rending true story, their foolishness is exploded by her emotional intelligence.

3. Be working class

Or if you can’t be working class, be as non-working class as can be.
It’s rare to find a member of the middle classes in a pub in a play. Hotels, golf clubs, drinks with friends at home, for sure, but pubs are very much for the lower orders and upper classes slumming it. Abigail doesn’t uncork the liebfraumilch for her party anywhere outside her sitting room. Alan Ayckbourn manages it in a Chorus of Disapproval, but there can’t be anywhere he hasn’t set a scene in 80-plus plays (and counting).
O’Casey’s pub in The Plough and The Stars is peopled with brickies and fitters and labourers, McDonagh’s in Hangmen with ‘cronies’ of no obvious means, and Shakespeare’s Boar’s Head with Falsta , Bardolph and the rest of the idlers and hangers-on who surround young Prince Hal.
Je rey Bernard was a comparatively well-born journalist who hardly qualifies as working class, but his choice of pub, The Coach and Horses in Soho, was as rundown an old barn as he could find. Whilst Keith Waterhouse, who fictionalised his life in Je rey Bernard is Unwell is one is one of the breakthrough working-class novelists and playwrights of the Angry Young Men era.
Even where the upper middle-class flickers towards a pub, we don’t get a glimpse of it. Young Birling’s drunken antics, which are part of the destruction of the life of a young woman, are reported back to the dinner-jacketed family in their drawing room in Priestley’s

An Inspector Calls, for example.
And Pinter’s Emma and Jerry from that opening stage direction above are only in the pub because they can’t think where else would be a neutral place to end the a air the play’s about to ravel backwards.
Nope, to date, the pub remains largely a venue for drama about the lower orders. The time of the Gastropub play is yet to come.

4. Be sober

In my own pub-set play, No Occasion To, I require one of my characters to down five pints of lager in about 45 minutes.
I was young, I was foolish, and a better cra sman than I would have found more imaginative ways to get characters o stage when I needed them not to hear things than sending them for yet another round. If only I had known exactly how whingey a whinging actor can be when they’re about to sink half a gallon of ginger ale for the eighth day in a row.

That said, it’s easy to see why a playwright in need of a setting finds comfort in the pub. First, most of us would rather be there than at our desks. Second, they o er a space that’s public but perfect for private conversations, as well as a reason for inhibitions to fall away and intimacy to grow as the evening wears on.

Jim Cartwright’s Two is a brilliant, funny and touching example of all that – two actors playing an entire cast of 14 characters in a series of interlinking relationships.
In short, though, keep an eye on the drink in most pub-set plays, and notice how o en short is the operative word.
Falsta may talk a big game, but how o en do you see him actually knocking one back? McPherson’s four lonely men prefer the whiskey to the beer, possibly for actor bladder- control reasons.
Pinter’s Jerry and Emma get through a pint-and-a-half of beer and a glass-and-a-bit of wine in a 20 to 25-minute opening scene. But then, they have other things to be thinking about than booze….

5. Be single

While in real life, the pub may be a place for a perfectly happy couple to have a perfectly happy drink on a perfectly pleasant evening, this ain’t the way of the pub in drama.
As mentioned, a lot of the characters (let’s face it, the men) in play pubs are alone, not by choice but o en by the choice of others not to be with them. While O’Casey’s drinkers o en have wives, they’re wives required to be home alone while the men are squandering the hard-earned. As with the Pinter, the pub is more o en the scene of a break-up than a first love.

Romance does sometimes rear its head, and JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World is as good an example as any of where that leads.
Barmaid Pegeen Mike is as taken as the lumpen mass of her regulars with the storytelling gi s of mysterious Christy Mahon when he stumbles into Flaherty’s Tavern.

Love winds its silken fetters around her, to the dismay of her clod-headed betrothed, but Christy’s tall tales are, as ever, more sow’s ear than silk purse, and poor old Pegeen Mike ends the play behind her bar, lamenting the loss of the ‘only playboy in the western world’ (though she does, and three cheers for Synge, get to dump him first, rather than his simply absconding).

6. The dangers of drinking
Pegeen Mike is first attracted to Christy Mahon when he tells her he has killed a man, and no less than his father at that.
Murder stalks the dramatic pub to a remarkable degree. If Ingmar Bergman had stuck a chessboard in a corner of Finnegan’s bar, Death couldn’t have been more at home.
Christy Mahon hasn’t actually killed a man, but Harry, the hero of Hangmen, has despatched dozens of them, usually (though, importantly, not always) because they’d committed murder themselves.
Je rey Bernard is near enough dead from drink when he gets himself locked in The Coach and Horses to tell his tale. Young Birling’s bad behaviour (among others) has the inspector calling because a woman is dead.
Eugene O’Neill’s Iceman hasn’t been sleeping with the hero’s wife; to borrow from another medium, she sleeps with the fishes.
The Shadow of a Gunman is never far from an O’Casey pub. Conor McPherson’s ghost stories inevitably involve the dead. Even Falsta metaphorically dies when Prince Hal eventually spurns him (though in a royal court rather than a pub).
In short, drink is dangerous.

And finally ….

The greatest of all pub plays is, of course, The Weir, and for one simple reason. It means I don’t have to imagine what my name looks like 10 feet high on a West End theatre. Cheers.

@January 2019 London Pub Theatres Magazine Ltd All Rights Reserved


new title lpt

Edinburgh Fringe remains the Holy Grail

             by David Weir

No-one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money, said Dr Samuel Johnson. The good doctor also believed ‘the finest sight a Scotchman ever sees is the High Road leading to England’.

Well, every year several thousand writers, actors and performers prove the great polymath wrong on both counts by hitching their wagons and heading north to the world’s biggest arts festival, braving a Scottish August’s cold and rain and more than likely to be sent home again lighter of heart but considerably lighter of bank balance

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival featured just shy of 55,000 performances in just over three weeks this August. That’s nearly 3,500 separate shows in 300 venues ranging from 400-seaters in the main spaces to a dozen chairs in the back of a café down Leith Walk.  And all those shows in search of an audience.  If getting them in off the streets for a London pub run is tough, finding punters willing to part with their cash in a city of near infinite choice and variety can feel like crossing the Atlantic in a rowing boat.

 For many, though, Edinburgh is a highlight in a touring schedule that will have passed through London pubs or be on their way to them. For some, it’s a one-off experience, for others its now an event in the diary every year. The Canal Café’s four-nights-a-week News Revue in London, for example, is not just the longest-running live comedy show, but now a hardy annual at Edinburgh, getting five-star reviews with its ‘popular songs everyone knows, adapted with razor sharp lyrics that cut through the political bollocks of 2018’.

Caroline Burns-Cooke, whose one-woman show premiered in Edinburgh this August, is another actor who’s performed in Edinburgh shows for many of the past 40 years. Two years ago, she first produced her own solo show there. This year, she did it again with Proxy, due on at the Hen and Chickens in Islington in November. “Edinburgh still remains a Holy Grail,” she says, “and there is still something special about it.” Holy Grail or not, it can be hard to always look on the bright side of life when weeks of rehearsal, an overdraft and five hours solidly handing out flyers to festival-goers with near infinite choice result in walking out on stage to three people, and two of them on a two-for-one deal.

Lucy Roslyn who took her own play Showmanship to the C Venue this year captures both the pain and the reward: “It is a hard slog doing the festival,” she says. “On your low days you may question what the hell you’re doing, but in this exhausting month you discover companies you find inspiring. You meet performers you would love to work with. You make friends.”

The Edinburgh International Festival began in 1947, with the aim of showcasing high art and culture, and the ‘official’ Festival still exists with a mixture of serious plays and orchestral music that safely sell their tickets. To little notice that first year, though, were just eight theatre companies who turned up uninvited to put on their own more varied shows in unofficial ‘fringe’ venues (one of them 30 miles outside the city across the river Forth). From that small beginning, the Fringe grew spectacularly and now dwarves its slightly po-faced parent, with more than 3,500 companies, performers and, frankly, chancers filling around 300 separate venues, schools, church halls, cafes, and, from time to time, a travelling caravan.

“It’s the Edinburgh Fringe,” says Caroline Burns-Cooke “It’s one of the few places people have heard of and are impressed by.”

One of the most valuable things for a performer or writer is that the Fringe is open access – the official Festival is invitation only, but there is no restriction on taking a show to the Fringe if you can pay for a venue and are willing to take the risk. “Of course this makes it democratic,” says Burns-Cooke. “and it is so vast these days.” Lucy Roslyn agrees that the Fringe is enormous, but says that “everyone is in the same boat – the same doubts, the same struggle to find an audience, the same strained feelings about reviews, the same horror stories. These things make you feel overwhelming alone, but you only have to turn around to someone and realise you have all these things in common.” All of which makes it not primarily about the money, more about the camaraderie and connections, the work itself, and what Lucy Roslyn calls a personal sense of worth.

As Burns-Cooke says, “You could come for self-promotion but this obviously works only for a tiny minority and is unlikely if you don’t have good PR or a gimmick behind you. But it can happen and that remains the dream.” And dreams really do come true.  In 1966, perhaps most famously, rave Fringe reviews for an absurdist comedy called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead made one Tom Stoppard an overnight sensation. Always wondered what happened to him!

Says Lucy Roslyn, though, with feet firmly ground-planted: “The festival is a trade show – you present something you are proud to stand beside, and if you are served any blows, have the courage to take them as an opportunity to lead you into making better work.  I would say it is not a competition, because another show’s success is not your failure. Granted, the festival is enormous now, and it sucks if your audience is thin on the ground, but often an audience of four can be just as incredible as a full house.”

The Fringe itself now has a sort-of Fringe of its own.  The Free Fringe was set up 15 years ago to counter a feeling that the Fringe was becoming a bit too, well, ‘official’.   While it hasn’t yet achieved the cachet of the Fringe, it is growing annually and attractive to financially strapped writers and performers, this year, hosting 9,237 performances (its most yet) of 402 shows at 25 venues.

After all, for all its democracy, the Fringe is an expensive business. You need to hire a venue, pay for transport, accommodation and food, and pay actors, writers, technicians and more. There’s publicity – all those flyers don’t pay for themselves. And there’s a registration fee.  In its guide for performers, the Fringe advises that most companies should expect to make a loss.  “If you’re going to Edinburgh in the hope of making a profit,” says Lucy Roslyn, “Godspeed, my friend. Over the cost of the venue hire and a place to stay, we’ve only ever made enough profit to buy one round in the bar, I reckon”.  

Venues cost anywhere from nothing to £10,000, depending on the size and fame of the space. It’s hardly surprising that solo shows and two-handers predominate – the fewer bodies to house and mouths to feed, the better.  Lucy Roslyn explains: “Every show we’ve taken has been simple: simply staged, small to solo performers, and many favours called on in order to make it happen. We have created the pieces with the demands of a festival and minimum funding in mind.” But the limits are frustrating: “The downside of having done this is that it can become difficult to imagine creating larger, more demanding work.”

Caroline Burns-Cooke argues for the value of the slightly more expensive, better-known venues – even though her show this year is likely to leave her several thousand pounds out of pocket.“My two shows have been at the Gilded Balloon and I think it’s worth paying to be in the “top four” venues – the Balloon, the Assembly, the Pleasance or the Underbelly.  I paid around £1,300 for the lovely Turret space in the Gilded Teviot, which is quite reasonable, and I’ll get a little back.” It was nearly £2,000 last time (for her show And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet in 2016).  “With accommodation, posters, the two brochures, Fringe and Gilded charges, flyers, and lighting/sound operator I’d estimate it cost £4,000 to £5,000, not including paying the director and living. And mine’s a cheap show!”

Lucy Roslyn went outside the big four, to the C Royale at Greenside, and found strength there: “I would hope that good work in any venue will attract, and from what I have seen, it does. A good atmosphere and kind staff do not go unnoticed. There was the most brilliant family atmosphere coming, for example, from the Greenside Venue this year. I know it feels like you must desperately make it into one of the better known venues or else perish by the wayside, but I think good work and the recommendations for it will take you all over the city.”

The rewards are not immediately pecuniary, then, and Lucy Roslyn warns that returns might not come through until around late October from some venues. On the other hand, Burns-Cooke’s 2016 show has, on the back of strong reviews at Edinburgh, gone on to tour the UK and parts of Europe, eventually winning Outstanding Performance at the Prague Fringe earlier this year. Similarly, Roslyn’s play The State Vs John Hayes (King’s Head theatre 2015) won the 2015 Argus Angel for Artistic Excellence, and Goody (Greenwich Theatre 2017), won the 2017 Les Enfant Terribles “Greenwich Partnership” Award. Both received multiple 4/5 star reviews during their runs and have led on to multiple collaborations for future work.

The current state of play for Burns-Cooke is wait and see. “… I did get one London booking [for Proxy], but financially you really can’t expect a return.”

Some venues offer smaller rental and a box-office split.  Straight rental with you taking the box office is more standard. The Fringe, in its advice to performers, suggests calculating likely income at 25 to 33 per cent of audience capacity – which means a max of 16 seats in a 50-seat venue, or about £224 a show at £14 a ticket. Trains for two from London to Edinburgh in August eat one show’s revenues at that rate.

Why do it, then?

“You do it for the show,” says Caroline Burns-Cooke, “the wonderful audience response, and reviews in order to sell it on don’t hurt. But financially and emotionally it can be gruelling”.Lucy Roslyn agrees: “Above all you learn about your own art. Regardless how many people come to your show, and what the reviews say – there is a sense of accomplishment from being a part of such a creative environment – and neither the audience numbers or the critics should come before that personal sense of worth. You did it.” And there’s friendship and professional admiration in the mix, too. “One of the greatest rewards of doing the Edinburgh Fringe is the connections you can make to other companies and performers. People whose work you are proud to champion over the years,” says Lucy Roslyn. “If you support one another and make a genuine connection, you never know who you’re going to meet or what future collaborations you will make.”

If the secret of comedy is timing, it’s much the same with Fringe show. Burns-Cooke again: “My 2016 show was 12.15 pm which was fine. This year, 11 am proved a wake-up too far, and I suffered with very small – if perfectly formed – audiences.”Notoriously, the early slots are hard to sell – the plethora of Shakespeare for Breakfast and Bite-Size-type shows offering coffee, croissants and, in the latter case, a strawberry, highlight the inventiveness needed.  One church hall this year hosting Oliver Twist offered bowls of soup.

Financially speaking, the Fringe can be a pretty cold house for writers, actors and performers, but the other rewards are huge.  The thrill of performing a whole month. The excitement when an audience comes. The even greater excitement when that audience laughs or gasps. And the bigger thrill still when you overhear someone in a café or pub telling someone your show was great.

Mixing with other performers, meeting the great and the good, impressing producers and promoters. Above all, impressing yourself.  No-one but a blockhead ever wrote, performed or produced except for money?  Dream on, Samuel. Dream on. 

Proxy by Caroline Burns-Cooke is at the Hen and Chickens, Islington, on 18 and 19 November

News Revue runs four nights a week at the Canal Café

Showmanship by Lucy Roslyn is at Theatre 503 on 25 and 26 November

 @November 2018 London Pub theatres Magazine

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