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King’s Head theatre toasts Victoria Wood and Tom Stoppard in season of rare plays

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2021-12-15
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Mine’s a play, please … the King’s Head theatre pub.

A pint-sized theatre that opened in the backroom of a London pub in 1970 is to toast five past productions by major playwrights before moving into a bigger, purpose-built home, next year.

Dramas by Tom Stoppard and Victoria Wood are among the scripts which will be given readings in the King’s Head theatre’s season, Barstools to Broadway, which celebrates the first five decades of the Islington theatre founded by Dan Crawford. Playwright Mark Ravenhill, who was appointed co-artistic director with Hannah Price a few months ago, said that the weeklong season has unearthed some real finds.

Bryony Lavery’s Grandmother’s Steps (1977) and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Third (1980) were both presented as lunchtime theatre shows at a time when stages were dominated by male playwrights. “One of the only chances that women had to get their work on was at lunchtime,” said Ravenhill. “Bryony and Timberlake wrote their half-hour plays and they had to be performed on the set of the show that was on in the evening – and that was always written by a chap.” The two plays were tracked down in theatre archives. “No one has read them, apart from the odd researcher, for getting on for 40 years,” said Ravenhill.

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Mark Ravenhill. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Victoria Wood’s play Good Fun, set in a community arts centre, was staged at the King’s Head in 1981 after its premiere at the Sheffield Crucible. It was Wood’s second professional theatre production after Talent and she was actively involved in fundraising for the venue in later years. When the King’s Head sought rights for the reading, Ravenhill was told: “Yes, this is exactly what Victoria would have wanted.”

After a launch event at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 14 February, where The Third will be read, the first reading in the theatre itself is of Tom Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase, a 1972 radio play adapted for the King’s Head in 1988. It ran in the West End and then went to Broadway. At the time, said Ravenhill, West End producers would look to the King’s Head for plays that could transfer. “Given that they were performed on something the size of a kitchen worktop, it’s quite incredible.” Moreover, the theatre had a famously leaky roof: “You were likely to be rained on while you were performing.”

Programming the season – which also features Stephen Jeffreys’ 1977 play Like Dolls or Angels – and overseeing the move to a new site has been “a hell of a lot to get your head round … like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time,” said Ravenhill. The purpose-built space in the neighbouring Islington Square development will have 220 seats – double its current capacity – and the space “will look a bit like the Donmar”. Along with the new job, Ravenhill has also been busy with his own new plays: the autobiographical audio drama Angela was written while he was shielding during lockdown.

Pub theatres have played a key role in his career: Shopping and Fucking had an early reading at the Finborough theatre. The King’s Head, he says, wouldn’t be here without the money it received from the government’s culture recovery fund. But as Covid case numbers rise and theatres around the UK battle through a wave of cancellations and postponements, the next few months “could be the most perilous of all” he said. “If this turns out to be a period where theatres are technically allowed to open, but very few people want to go to them, that would be a big financial challenge.”

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