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Lunchtime Theatre's Comeback

Dateline: 6th January, 2008

It's nearly one o'clock and I'm at the back of a pub selling a fringe theatre ticket to Steven Berkoff.

"Any concessions?" I ask.

"Well, I am rather old," he replies. He is obviously used to fans turning slightly ditzy on him.

So, I usher the big-shot himself into our lunchtime showcase of topically themed new writing. Obviously having Mr Berkoff in the front row for our triple-bill, has everyone involved overly-excited. Berkoff wasn't alone; in the house that day, was someone from the Soho Theatre, another theatre director, a casting agency and two literary agents.

For our first run of "in association" plays with the King's Head Theatre in Islington, we sold out weekend shows and sat 30+ during the week. By fringe standards this is good; by lunchtime fringe standards, it's amazing.

What I realised is that lunchtime theatre is pretty cutely placed for

  1. the expanding flexi-hour workforce
  2. industry folk who are sick of the work/life non-balance so avoid evening shows
  3. a place that can dare to be 'different'.

As Stephanie Sinclair, Creative Director at the Kings Head, says, "It's a lower risk, lower profile time where interesting discoveries can be made and talent can be nurtured. Like a short story or a poem the impact can be condensed and quite intense."

At the moment, it's only the King's Head and Bridewell Theatre that run regular (fringe) lunchtime shows in London. Lucy Hillard, in charge at Bridewell, launched hers two years ago to attract city-workers on their lunch breaks. She uses it to showcase emerging talent but also runs more conventional series, for example, a run of Oscar Wilde plays. Although lunchtime doesn't turn in a profit, there's been enough interest to keep it going.

In its hey-day – and yes it had one - lunchtime theatre was a trendy addition to the cultural calendar. It started up in 1966, but came into its own in the seventies. In fact it was so much the rage that Croydon Warehouse didn't bother with evening shows until a few years later. Mid-day culture was the place for daring, risqué, interesting plays, that purposefully precluded the 9 – 5 office drones. In fact, to show how 'on the ball' lunchtime theatre was, London's gay-only acting group Gay Sweatshop had its roots in the lunchtime theatre club Ambience.

Meanwhile, David Edgar's plays found fame from initial lunchtime runs at the then Soho Polytechnic. Similarly, the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond started out life in 1971, founded by Sam Walters as a lunchtime theatre in a room above the Orange Tree pub. Ken Chubb, co-founder of the Wakefield Tricycle Company in 1972, began by producing lunchtime plays that never been produced in England. Naturally, industry folk flocked to find new talent. Actors' Agent Peter Green said, "You'd find them (casting directors and other directors) at lunchtime theatres in Soho looking for new, young actors, and talking to them."

Although lunchtime theatre waned after the seventies, it never died out; every once in a while it gets a revival. For instance, last year's Wild Lunch at the Young Vic was an eight-part series of script-in-hand performances. To showcase national new talent, writers were chosen from workshops in Liverpool, Leeds, York, Cardiff, Notthingham, Edinburgh as well as London.

Recently, A Play, a Pie and a Pint turned in four plays at the Shunt Vaults. Although they set it at 6pm, to catch peckish commuters, they'd taken the format from a famous lunchtime series in Glasgow. Launched to showcase twelve plays in 2004, it was so popular it went on to stage one hundred. In fact, the event became such a fixture in the city's cultural life, the guardian labelled it "the most exciting, cultural event in recent Scottish cultural history". Spear-headed by David Maclennan (armed with his fat contact book), it attracted new and established writers, and a stellar list of actors, including Robbie Coltrane, Elaine C. Smith, David Hayman, Karen Dunbar and Eileen McCallum while plays came from writers as diverse as Anne Donovan, Louise Welsh, Allan Massie and Greg Hemphill.

It was in the seventies heyday that the Kings Head opened with lunchtime shows. For a while it was run by Jane Edwardes, former administrator who is now Time Out's theatre editor. Alan Rickman, Richard E Grant, Gary Oldman, and Stephen Daldry have all trod the stage at Kings Head lunch times.

Because it's not under the financial pressure of the main evening show, Lunchtime theatre is still the best place to try out new ideas (for example, Zeitgeist themes its triple-bill of twenty minute shorts, on current issues like gun-crime), a place to use West End actors who are free in the day-time and can attract Londoners interested in provoking new work.

It's only a matter of time until other fringe venues realise the potential and launch their own lunchtime shows.

(Zeitgeist Theatre in association with King's Head Theatre presents World at One from 22 – 27th January @ 1pm)

Zia Trench

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©Peter Lathan 2008