If you are a regular reader of these blogs, then you will know that I have written previously on the subject of fringe theatre and its importance to the industry. I love the West End, but there is no doubt that it benefits enormously from the many theatres in and around London which are staging high-quality productions, with numerous venues acting as a springboard for these productions to step up to the ‘big stage’. Fringe theatre is not all about moving on to bigger and better things though. That aside, these wonderful theatrical pieces offer audiences a far more intimate and raw experience than can be found in the big West End theatres, serving to make you feel a part of something.
There are hidden gems to be found all over London, but if it’s the big, payday treasure chest you’re looking for then Union Street is one place where ‘X’ definitely marks the spot; but not for much longer perhaps.
Having stressed the necessity of encouraging and supporting fringe theatre time and again, the news that the Union Theatre may be forced to close both saddened and angered me. A former paper warehouse, it was turned into a functioning theatre in 1998 by Sasha Regan and has since become a fringe favourite for the way in which it optimises the small space to the maximum benefit, having gained somewhat of a reputation for staging critically acclaimed musical productions. Now all that may be set to end due to Network Rail’s refurbishments on the railway arches on Union Street (under which the theatre is sited) by Network Rail. The venue hasn’t been served its notice as of yet, but founder and artistic director Sasha Regan said she had been forewarned by Network Rail that the site is to be turned into offices, news which she told The Stage was “devastating”, adding that: “We don’t think the area needs a huge bunch of offices when offices next door have been empty for two years.”
A petition has been launched by members of the Union Street Traders Association in Southwark in an effort to stop the development project, which would see the Union Theatre forced to close and relocate to other premises. It has been signed by more than 2,000 people so far.
The Union Theatre is a vital part of the fringe theatre scene. The 50-seat venue was recently acknowledged for its work, winning Fringe Theatre of the Year in the 2013 Stage 100 Awards – and rightly so. The theatre has staged many high-quality productions in the fifteen years since it was first established, including the all-male version of The Mikado, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and The Pyjama Game, as well as the very recent revival of Chess which starred the likes of Nadim Naaman, Natasha J. Barnes and Craig Rhys Barlow. It also holds claim to staging the London premiere of new musical Once Upon A Time at the Adelphi in 2010.
I last visited the theatre in 2012 when I attended Anderson & Petty Present…The Songwriter’s Union in an evening which celebrated new musical theatre writing, featuring the work of composers Anderson & Petty alongside Christopher J Orton (My Land’s Shore) and Laura Tisdall (The In-Between), performed by such West End vocal talents as Kieran Brown, Kelly-Anne Gower, Sophie Evans, Matthew Barrow, Chloe Hart and Jonathan Williams. It was a wonderful showcase of some of the UK’s best up-and-coming writers, made all the better for the warm and intimate atmosphere the Union Theatre provided. It is a delightful venue for any theatrical event, whether it be musical, play or cabaret, and its loss would also be a loss for not only fringe theatre, but the theatre industry in general.
Under the dark cloud that the threat of closure brings, it is heartening to see people rallying round in support of the theatre and taking action to try and save it. The Union Theatre is important to many people and for many reasons. Built up over fifteen years, a lot of hard work and effort has gone into making it what it is today – will we let it be destroyed now? I say no, and if you do too, then sign the petition and help to secure the future of the Union Theatre.
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)
Tuesday 9th April 2013