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‘It moved boundaries’: 47 years of King’s Head Theatre pub in Upper Street

PUBLISHED: 15:18 04 August 2017 | UPDATED: 09:26 07 August 2017

The King's Head pub in the 1980s. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

The King's Head pub in the 1980s. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

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In 1970, the King’s Head became London’s first theatre pub since Shakespeare’s time – putting Upper Street on the map long before all the fancy restaurants came along. As plans are revealed for the theatre to move, the Gazette looks back at its history so far.

The Kings Head Theatre is leaving the King's Head pub in Upper Street. Picture: Ewan Munro/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0 The Kings Head Theatre is leaving the King's Head pub in Upper Street. Picture: Ewan Munro/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Pricey restaurants and gluten-free artisan bakeries weren’t welcome in Upper Street 47 years ago.

In 1970, Islington’s famous shopping street didn’t have the sleek feel it has today.

In fact, according to King’s Head Theatre artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher, Upper Street was a bit rough.

It was also a time when fringe theatre – experimental shows in tiny venues – didn’t exist. It was the West End or nothing.

Dan Crawford took over the King's Head in 1970. He is pictured with an early 20th century till he used to price drinks in pounds, shillings and pence. Picture: David Giles/PA Archive Dan Crawford took over the King's Head in 1970. He is pictured with an early 20th century till he used to price drinks in pounds, shillings and pence. Picture: David Giles/PA Archive

That year, Dan Crawford was in London working as a builder. He came from America, where dinner theatre – serving meals during a show – was popular.

Dan wanted to take elements of this concept by opening a theatre pub. And, as with many artistic movements, he took his idea to an unfashionable area.

“If you think about Upper Street in 1970,” Adam tells the Gazette, “it wasn’t a lovely place. In those days, it was a bit of a dive. There were hardly any restaurants. The roads off Upper Street were populated by musicians and artists because the rent was so cheap.

“Dan walked into the King’s Head pub and asked the owner: ‘I heard you’re thinking about selling?’ He said: ‘Oh my god, I can’t wait to get out of here.’ That was how London’s first theatre pub since Shakespeare’s time began.”

Adam Spreadbury-Maher, artistic director of the King's Head Theatre. Picture: King's Head Theatre Adam Spreadbury-Maher, artistic director of the King's Head Theatre. Picture: King's Head Theatre

The theatre itself was built in the pub’s old boxing ring and pool hall. At that time, this tiny venue was a major innovation.

“Before that,” Adam says, “it was regional theatres or the West End. The King’s Head theatre pub was a reinterpretation of how to experience theatre. It was Dan Crawford who said: ‘Why not do theatre for 20 people?’ He moved those boundaries.

“Dan was interested in reviving pieces and playwrights who had fallen out of fashion. People like Vivian Ellis and Terrence Rattigan. He said ‘hang on, they are still great’ and gave them a platform again. It really put the King’s Head on the map.”

The King’s Head Theatre has helped launched the careers of major stars, from Alan Rickman to Sir Tom Stoppard. Joanna Lumley, Hugh Grant, Dawn French, Richard E Grant and Jennifer Saunders have all performed there. Sadly, founder Dan died in 2005.

King's Head Theatre helped launch the career of Sir Tom Stoppard, pictured during filming of A Maverick in London in 2006. Picture: King's Head Theatre King's Head Theatre helped launch the career of Sir Tom Stoppard, pictured during filming of A Maverick in London in 2006. Picture: King's Head Theatre

Many pieces have also transferred to the West End, though Adam is at pains to stress: “It is never the intention to make it to the West End, otherwise it diminishes the purpose of the King’s Head.

“It’s a great place for an actor to get their first break, and for us to find out if something works – without the risk of it dying in a large space.

“Nothing has changed in that sense. Our values are 100 per cent the same today as they were in 1970. We have added to those values – with ethical employment and fair pay – but the type of work we make, and who we make it for, will always be the same.”

But it’s also time to move on. On Wednesday, the theatre announced it will move into the nearby Islington Square development late next year.

2 Become 1, a recent production at the King's Head Theatre. Picture: Swipe Right Theatre Company 2 Become 1, a recent production at the King's Head Theatre. Picture: Swipe Right Theatre Company

The current 110-seat theatre can no longer “contain its artistic ambition”, and a new venue will be more financially sustainable.

It will consist of a 250-seat auditorium and an 85-seat studio. Elements of the original theatre will remain: the dressing room at the back, for instance, will form part of the new entrance. The pub will remain.

Adam doesn’t feel like he is leaving: “We are taking it with us. The King’s Head Theatre is not a building. It’s about spirit, energy, purpose and vision.

“It’s exciting we can continue our work in a secure space. We do art well already, but with two spaces we can work with people earlier in their careers and develop them for a longer time. That’s what I get out of bed for in the morning.”

An artist's impression of the new development, showing the theatre space in the foreground on the south of Islington Square. Picture: Islington Square/Redwood Consulting An artist's impression of the new development, showing the theatre space in the foreground on the south of Islington Square. Picture: Islington Square/Redwood Consulting

‘Our claustrophobic venue allowed people to get to the heart of stories’

Over 47 years, which performance was the most important – the one that embodied the spirit of the King’s Head Theatre?

Artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher picks out Vieux Carré, which was performed in 2012.

He says: “It was originally written by Tennessee Williams, a very important American playwright, almost thought of as the Shakespeare of his time over there.

“Vieux Carré went on Broadway in 1977, but it flopped. It was pulled after four nights.

“We revived it for the King’s Head. It went really well and eventually transferred to the West End.

“Doing it in a small theatre rehabilitated it. When it first came out, it was on a huge scale with high expectations. It was over-produced and overblown. Holding it on our claustrophobic venue got rid of all that, and allowed people to get to the heart of the story.”

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