Published in the July 2012 issue of enRoute
The lights dim as two pianists play the opening notes from Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta The Mikado on a shiny black baby grand positioned stage right. A man in the front row uses his pint glass as an armrest while the woman next to him sips a berry-coloured cocktail. We are so close we can see our reflections in the actors’ patent leather shoes.
West End shows are an institution in London, but tonight I’m nowhere near the Strand. I’m front and centre at the King’s Head Theatre & Pub in Islington, experiencing two quintessentially British pastimes: a night at the pub and a night at the theatre. The King’s Head became the first new “opera house” in London in almost a half-century when it started staging classics such as Puccini’s La Bohème with admission running as little as £5 – this in a city where an evening at the Royal Opera House can cost up to £200. And judging by the audience’s laughter, it’s a hit.
“We’re doing something no one else is doing. We’re experimenting on a small stage,” Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the Australian-born artistic director at the King’s Head and a former opera singer, tells me a few days later as we sit by one of the pub’s fireplaces. Antique red velvet theatre seats are propped against a pressed-tin wall, and photos of actors like Rupert Graves line the room. The lilt of a soprano rises from the back theatre (once a boxing ring and pool hall) during an afternoon rehearsal. “It’s pub-lic opera,” Spreadbury-Maher says, sipping a tar-black cup of coffee. (It is, after all, only 2 p.m.) “We’re democratizing it.”
While King’s Head was the first (since the days of Shakespeare), it isn’t the only show in town; other fine drinking establishments-cum-theatres include the Old Red Lion Theatre and the Hen & Chickens Theatre Bar, attracting stars like Joseph Fiennes (who appeared at The Bush Theatre) and Rachel Weisz (who performed at the Finborough Theatre). The night I see The Mikado, the lead playing Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, shimmies, flexes his muscleman biceps and does a few dance moves borrowed from an old hip hop video when he wins the shrew Katisha. To seal the deal, Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko fist-bump. The performance is – appropriately for a Gilbert and Sullivan musical – over the top. The audience howls and raises a glass.