Ever since my first visit to the West End as a teenager, I've dreamt about what the life of a successful actor might look like: long, indulgent lunches with theatrical royalty, legendary first nights with endless standing ovations – and then, the most important part, scandalous after-show escapades with the great and good of stage in a hidden underground Soho drinking den. More mythic than realistic? Quite possibly. But the first time I staggered into The Phoenix Artist Club the latter part of my fantasy all but came true.
I'd just seen a performance of the musical Blood Brothers at The Phoenix Theatre, which sits above the club, and was ushered into the venue by no less than the leading lady of that show, Sarah Hay — understudying the role of Mrs Johnstone at the time. What lurked below those stairs stunned me: the 1930s parquet floor, the smorgasbord of theatrical memorabilia, the row upon row of autographed headshots opposite the copper-topped bar — but most of all, the array of intriguing and infinitely glamorous characters stationed at that bar, coolly sipping yet another vodka stinger. Here, at last, I'd found the theatre land of my dreams.
In April 2018, The Phoenix Artist Club celebrated 30 years of entertaining entertainers. Over those three decades, it has cemented a formidable reputation as one of London's subterranean gems. Its journey has sometimes been as crazy and tumultuous as the careers of some of the stars who have graced — and fallen off — the stools of its infamous bar.
"We walked in to find this camp old queen on his daily bottle of gin and a third packet of cigarettes"
The history of The Phoenix Artist Club is every bit as bizarre and eclectic as its interior décor. Opened in 1988 by entrepreneur John Mahoney, it rapidly became the go-to place for actors, musicians, and singers — but also workmen in the West End, who would assemble in the bar's back room and kick the morning off with a boxing match if they disagreed over which jobs they were allocated. As you do.
It's in this back room that I meet Colin Savage, who co-owns The Phoenix with his partner Ken Wright. Thanks to Ken — a former air steward — I'm sipping my wine while sitting in the training seats once used by Britannia Airways. Everything attached to The Phoenix has a rich story behind it, but none more so, perhaps, than the tale of how Colin and Ken came to own this most venerable of establishments.
"We walked past it numerous times and wondered what the place was. Then one Saturday afternoon we sauntered in to find this camp old queen — Maurice Huggett, the then owner — sat at the bar, working his way through his daily bottle of gin and a third packet of cigarettes. He thought we were football hooligans!"
Over the next few years, the club became Colin and Ken's regular haunt, and Maurice — one of the last big Bohemian characters of Soho — became a close friend. When Maurice died in 2011 the couple were astonished to inherit his shares in The Phoenix. "Were we daunted? Oh, yes," says Colin. But he soon got the measure of the place at Maurice's wake.
"Maurice's coffin was laid out in the back room, on the stage, and all of his friends were filing in to pay their respects," explains Colin. "We showed one couple in and then asked them how they knew Maurice. 'Oh, no, we didn’t know him. We've just seen Blood Brothers upstairs and thought this was part of the show', they responded."
"We had Jennifer Lawrence down here recently. I had no idea who she was"
Colin's breezy reaction to this most surreal moment typifies the Phoenix's relaxed ambience — which despite its glittering clientele is devoid of pretension. Over the years the club has hosted such luminaries as Ed Sheeran (who Ken confused with the deceased Ned Sherrin), Ian McKellen, John Hurt and even Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. Then there are the Hollywood stars: Jude Law, Danny DeVito, Orlando Bloom and Rupert Everett have all sought respite from the merciless media glare in The Phoenix. Kiefer Sutherland has even served behind the bar, while Princess Michael of Kent has popped by for a small sherry.
"We had Jennifer Lawrence down here recently. She arrived with all her people, loads of paparazzi out the front. I had no idea who idea who she was," Colin laughs. "I looked her up. The highest paid actress in the world, apparently.
"The only person who has been a pain about security was Keira Knightley — well, not her, but her people. Most of the time celebrities don't have security here. We're not that sort of place. But she had a guy in a black suit behind her practically saying 'no one touches Keira'."
Other visitors run from the sublime to the ridiculous, adds Colin. "We've had some of the biggest porn stars in the world down here. There was a show around the corner at The Arts Theatre which featured guys from Falcon, so they all ventured in too!"
"Unlike most other clubs, we've also adopted the Netflix model of membership"
The greatest thing about the Phoenix Artist Club is not its illustrious customers, but the mythical piece of London which, thanks to regeneration and spiralling rents, is fast disappearing. While other venues have closed, The Phoenix has repeatedly risen and is now one of London's last independently owned and operated clubs.
The club's unique heritage is everywhere you look: the walls are adorned with such delights as costume designs from Irving Berlin's Century Girl of 1916 and a veritable who's who of Victorian theatre glitterati. "These are real treasures," explains Colin. "So much so that people from a very well-known London theatre went to all the effort of unscrewing certain photos from the wall and walking off with them. We spotted them though, and I put in a call to the theatre manager and requested them back!"
But in Colin and Ken's hands, the Phoenix is far from a relic from the past. The pair has embraced the new technologies that are transforming our lives: in the day, the club also serves as a vibrant creative hub with ultra-fast broadband. Additionally, it has introduced nightly in-house entertainment and runs over 600 ticketed events a year. "Unlike most other clubs, we've also adopted the Netflix model of membership, whereby you pay a monthly fee," adds Colin.
As I prepare to leave this magical cave, Colin points out a door covered with VIP passes of bands that used to play at the much-missed Astoria, across Charing Cross Road. "All of these guys used to come in here," says Colin. "It's a part of London that is gone." I'm hit with a sudden pang of nostalgia for all those lost nights of shenanigans at the now-demolished venue. And then I look around me, intoxicated once more by the zany splendour of this theatrical haven. For as long as this majestic Phoenix flies high and proud, the legends of that bygone London will never be lost.