Nestled in the heart of Angel, in Highbury and Islington, The Old Red Lion is one of the oldest pubs in London, having been built in 1415. What truly sets this charming boozer apart though, is the Fringe theatre on its first floor, that was opened in the late 1970s. Over the years, it's gained a reputation for nurturing and showcasing some of the country's best theatrical talent. #VillageLondon spoke to Stewart Pringle - the theatre's artistic director – to discover more about this iconic venue and its prevalence in the borough of Highbury and Islington.
Tell us a bit about what you do at The Old Red Lion.
I'm the artistic director here, which means I'm responsible for all aspects of the programming, management, promotion and general running of the theatre space. I read scripts, meet companies, provide advice and support in various areas of production and promotion, and ensure the companies who visit the space are well cared for and that the shows they bring here are a success. Luckily I get fantastic support from Dwaine and Steph who manage the bar, and we have a great team here who help with the day to day running of the entire building. That whole 'we're one big family' is a bit of a cliché, but it's kind of true here.
How did it all start/where did you learn your trade?
Well I don't think I've ever really thought of it as a trade! But I took literature degrees at Oxford and then at Cambridge university, and did a lot of theatre in various capacities while I was studying. Then I worked as a director and writer on the London Fringe for a few years, and when this position became vacant at the start of last year I thought it was a good time to make a hobby a day job.
How is business?
Business is good! It's often a little harder to find audiences in the really hot summer months, but we do have full air conditioning, and we have such great work on over the next couple of months that I think we're going to be fine. We have a couple of weeks dedicated to Fringe previews in late July, which is going to be crazy fun (as in, both crazy and fun) and then a fantastic double bill of rarely performed Noel Coward plays. Then we're into our Autumn and Winter season, which is looking absolutely stunning. We should be announcing that mid-July. I really hope it's going to blow people away.
How has Highbury & Islington played a role in the theatre's success?
It's a great area for theatres. As well as us you've got the King's Head and The Hope Theatre, which are both awesome Fringe venues, and then you've got the Little Angel Puppet Theatre which is just one of those perfect treasures of a space. And then of course there's the Almeida, which has probably grown into one of the UK's most exciting producing houses in the last couple of years. Everything there is just electric. So I think being in an area so well known for culture attracts a lot of trade. People come to Islington for an exciting, challenging night out, and we're happy to oblige.
How does The Old Red Lion contribute to Angel's sense of character?
As a pub, it's a real old fashioned boozer in an age where every other pub seems to be gastro something or craft beer something else. We serve ale. We have a snug. There's no DJ. And I think it's important that places like that endure. And as a theatre I think we offer exciting, challenging work that seeks to surprise audiences out of their comfort zone. We don't go in for cosy theatre, we want work that's provoking and original.
How do you feel about gentrification in the local area?
God, it's pretty much fully gentrified already, isn't it? I mean, in general I seriously worry about the effect of gentrification on the character of an area and the lives of the less than massively well-off, but I'd have thought Islington was pretty much max gentrified already. I don't know if it has an impact on our audiences, but I do think it would be a real shame if we ended up only catering for those who can afford to pay Islington rent or buy a £1 million flat. We're a theatre for all of London, and I think quite proud of that.
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