London’s theatre scene is more vibrant than ever, with venues and shows of all different sizes. If you venture away from the West End, you can find many theatrical treats in our city’s unconventional performance spaces.
We’ve covered fringe theatres before, but this top 10 will run you through what we think are the best, quirkiest and most interesting alternative off-West-End venues. In no particular order…
1. Theatro Technis
A short stroll from Mornington Crescent Tube station, Camden’s Theatro Technis is a real gem. The theatre is a former church house, which gives the venue higher ceilings and a more spacious feel than many of its smaller fringe counterparts.
The theatre company was founded in 1957 by a group of Greek Cypriot actors whose first base was a Camden Garage. The early 1970s saw the group move to a former railway shed near King’s Cross before taking up residence at their current location on Crowndale Road.
Today, the venue plays host to a varied bill of often experimental and unusual performances. In 2011 it featured a much lauded interpretation of The Hound of the Baskervilles in the style of 1930s radio theatre.
Theatro Technis is at 26 Crowndale Road, London, NW1 1TT. Image from Google Street View.
2. Courtyard Theatre
Situated in a former library in the heart of Hoxton’s buzzing artistic scene, the Courtyard Theatre is one of London’s newer fringe venues. It boasts two performance spaces, a 150 seat main house and an 80 seat studio. It hosts a mixed line-up of challenging and often experimental theatrical pieces. Recent productions include a critically acclaimed adaptation of Steven Berkoff’s meditation on Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
The courtyard is an enticing prospect both for convivial atmosphere and its challenging and inspired programme.
The Courtyard Theatre is at Bowling Gren Walk, 40 Pitfield Street, London, N1 6EU
3. The Red Hedgehog
Nestled amongst shops on the busy Archway Road, The Red Hedgehog takes its influence from a 19th Century Viennese coffee house called Zum Roten Igel. The venue has a shabby charm and a feel that is somewhere between a performance space and a living room. Its events include an eclectic mix of fringe theatre, music and talks.
It has become well known in the Highgate area for the diversity of its performances and is celebrated for its ‘salon concerts’ and classical recitals. The venue provides respite from the busy streets around it, with its bohemian charm and interesting mix of events and performances.
The Red Hedgehog is at 255-257 Archway Road London, N6 5BS
4. The Old Vic Tunnels
The Old Vic Tunnels is one of the most unusual spaces in London to watch theatre, performance and attend arts events. Acquired by the Old Vic in 2010, this series of eerie but atmospheric tunnels below Waterloo station plays host to a variety of art, theatre, performance and installations.
The Old Vic Tunnels are more a multimedia arts space than just a theatre. The venue is working to promote emerging talent as part of its ‘Underground Artists in Residence’ scheme, showcasing the work of designers, graffiti artists, film makers, DJs and photographers.
In contrast to more established venues in the local area such as the Old Vic itself, the Old Vic Tunnels provides a platform for new, emerging and underexposed talent from a range of disciplines.
The Old Vic Tunnels can be accessed from Station Approach Road & Leake Street, London SE1
Situated in vaults beneath platform one of London Bridge railway station, Southwark Playhouse is a versatile studio theatre space, seating 250 people.
It has existed for over 15 years, originally based at Southwark Bridge before moving to its current location. The theatre’s mission is to support experimental performance and the work of emerging performers and practitioners.
Since 2009, the venue has also been home to the Southwark Playhouse Young Company, a youth led group with the aim of nurturing performance skills amongst young people in the borough.
Southwark Playhouse is at Shipwright Yard, London, SE1 2TF. Image by Jonnie Fielding.
6. Network Theatre
Many of London’s fringe venues could be described as hidden, but the word is most appropriate for the Network Theatre, which is situated on an industrial approach road beneath Waterloo station that doesn’t appear on many maps!
As you make your way to the Network for the first time, you’ll be struck by the feeling that you’ve taken a wrong turn or at least you’re in a place you shouldn’t be. Lorries manoeuvre around you as they drop produce off in the loading bays that the venue counts as neighbours.
An odd location, granted, but one which is not without its own curious charm. Once inside, it boasts a large stage for a fringe venue along with flexible seating that gives the space a real adaptability for hosting different types of performance.
The Theatre has its own amateur company but also stages a range of professional productions. This year, the Network’s collaborative production of The Tempest with Kipper Tie Theatre has been selected by the Royal Shakespeare Company to appear as part of their ‘Open Stages Showcase’ season at Questors Theatre in Ealing.
Find the Network (if you can!) at 246A Lower Road, Waterloo, London, SE1 8SF
7. Hen and Chickens
Located, as many fringe venues are, above a pub of the same name, Hen and Chickens is one of London’s most established and well-loved venues.
Despite being relatively compact and seating just 54 people, Hen and Chickens boasts a large fixed stage for a venue of its size. It has become one of the best places in the Highbury and Islington area to catch comedy, hosting a range of stand-up, improv and sketch shows.
Keep an eye out for big names trying out new material on smaller audiences. This year sees Jenny Eclair road test new gags.
Aside from comedy, the Hen and Chickens plays host to an impressive range of theatrical performance. Check the venue out in the months leading up to the Edinburgh Festival as it often features comics and theatre companies trying out new work before their Edinburgh run.
Hen and Chickens is at 109 St Paul’s Road London, N1 2NA
The Etcetera is a well known fringe venue in the heart of Camden Town, located above the Oxford Arms pub. It seats 42 people, and is an intimate space with a fixed stage.
The Etcetera won the ‘Guinness Ingenuity in Pub Theatre’ award in 1996 and has also been nominated for the ‘Peter Brook Empty Space Award’. This is testament to the venue’s pioneering approach and mixed bill of performances.
It’s a busy and vibrant venue, showing up to two or three performances some nights, and mixing a good dose of comedy in with its theatrical works.
It is also a great place to catch comedians trying out new material, Edinburgh warm up shows as well as just being a place to chill out and see new talent.
Etcetera Theatre is at 265 Camden High Street London, NW1 5BU
9. Jackson’s Lane
Jackson’s Lane is a beautiful 160 seat theatre and arts venue housed in a former Methodist church. It has a long history of supporting emerging and established artists and hosts events ranging from experimental visual theatre to contemporary dance and circus.
Jackson’s Lane provides a real focal point for the Highgate community as, on top of its theatre space, it has studios for a whole range of courses and classes including street dance and salsa. It also runs a community café and is available for private parties and functions.
Whether you enjoy experimental theatre, stand up comedy or just want to go for a quick coffee on a Saturday afternoon, Jackson’s Lane is one of the most inviting venues in this corner of North London.
Jackson’s Lane is at 269A Archway Road London, N65AA. Image from the theatre.
Pentameters was founded in 1968 by artistic director Léonie Scott-Matthews who went on to win a ‘Camden Good Citizen Award’ for her creative contribution to the Hampstead community.
Under Scott-Mathews direction, Pentameters, which is now based at a 60-seat performance space above the Three Horseshoes pub, has gone on to become one of London’s most renowned and well-loved alternative venues. It has proved popular with both audiences and performers alike.
Pentameters is at 28 Heath Street (Entrance Oriel Place) London NW3 6TE.
By Andrew Taylor
View our more-detailed guides to London’s fringe venues in our Fringe Benefits series.