Like a local: 8 of London’s Best Pub Theatres

by Andrea Gambaro  |  Published March 19, 2019

Pub theatres are an alternative way to enjoy plays, comedy and performances to the big West End theatres. Scattered all over London, these intimate venues merge the traditional pub atmosphere with a radical streak of fringe theatre.

The Old Red Lion in Angel (Photo: Adam Bruderer)

Pubs are a quintessentially British thing, and so are pub theatres. For decades these tiny function rooms have served as spirited hubs for fringe acts and performances, thus establishing them as an essential component of the London theatre scene and offering a compelling alternative to mainstream venues. Today, they are faced with the challenges of a changing environment, but still provide offbeat entertainment for local and far-reaching audiences.

Old Red Lion Theatre

Opened in 1979, the Old Red Lion Theatre belongs to London’s old-guard of fringe theatre venues. Seeking to endorse emerging talent, the Old Red Lion takes pride in having been a springboard for Kathy Burke, Stephen Daldry, Penelope Skinner and Nina Raine, among others. The Play That Goes Wrong – an award-winning comedy play currently on Broadway – premiered here in 2012. In addition, the theatre has hosted the past two editions of the London Horror Festival. The Red Lion is also a family-run pub whose history is claimed to stretch as far back as 1415.

418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ

The Etcetera is one of the venues of the Voila! Europe theatre festival (photo: Robert Piwko)

Etcetera Theatre

Established 30 years ago in the heart of Camden, the Etcetera has built its reputation by consistently supporting some of the most exciting new artists approaching the London scene. Theatre companies, comedians and performers are promoted through a programme which spans award-winning acts, new writing, cabaret, magic, comedy and musicals. The venue is also known as a hub for many of London’s annual theatre festivals, including the Camden Fringe, Black Box and Voila! Europe. On the ground floor, The Oxford Arms is a family-run pub offering a warm atmosphere, live sports events and generous opening times.

265 Camden High Street, London NW1 7BU

The Bread And Roses is named after a song written by James Oppenheim (Photo: Bread And Roses)

Bread and Roses Theatre

This trade union-owned pub was named after a song James Oppenheim wrote during a strike that took place in Massachusetts in 1912, when female textile workers held up banners calling for bread and roses. The theatre was launched by its namesake company in November 2014, and received the ICPW 50/50 Applause Award the following year. The programme promotes equality, diversity and artistic quality through a variety of new writing, contemporary revivals, classics, improvisational theatre, comedy and more. Additionally, the pub downstairs offers a beer garden and live music at weekends. The Bread and Roses Theatre Company also founded the Clapham Fringe Festival, which takes place every year in early Autumn.

68 Clapham Manor Street, London SW4 6DZ

The interior of the King’s Head Theatre (Photo: King’s Head)

King’s Head Theatre

A former back room housing a boxing ring and a pool table, King’s Head Theatre was the first pub theatre in London since Shakespeare’s day. The achievements made since 1970 speak for themselves: While many productions have transferred to the West End and Broadway, the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Dawn French, John Hurt, Ben Kingsley and Victoria Wood trod their first boards here. In 2016 the King’s Head scored its highest footfall ever – 43,857 audience members – proving fringe theatre in London is still alive and kicking.

115 Upper Street, London N1 1QN (soon to move to Islington Square)

The Drayton Arms, in Old Brompton Road (Photo: Drayton Arms)

Drayton Arms Theatre

The Drayton Arms dates back to 1860, and its upstairs room has had a theatrical purpose since just after WWII. In more recent times it was revamped as a professional fringe venue, since then providing an intimate space for new companies and artists. The listings include a mix of classics, new works and comedy. While the theatre showcases emerging productions nightly, the ground floor provides freshly-prepared seasonal food and all the comforts of a South Kensington pub.

153 Old Brompton Road, London SW5 0LJ

The White Bear’s beer garden (Photo: White Bear)

White Bear Theatre

Much in keeping with the authentic spirit of pub theatres, the White Bear seeks to support emerging talents by staging both new writing and reviving lost classics. Through almost 30 years of activity, the theatre has received numerous awards, including the Off West End, the Mark Marvin/Peter Brook and Time Out Best Fringe Venue. One more reason to visit is the historic White Bear pub, opened in 1780. Modern and traditional at the same time, the pub boasts one of Kennington’s best-loved beer gardens, which is also home to three bee hives.

138 Kennington Park Rd, London SE11 4DJ

‘The Busy World Is Hushed’, staged at the Finsborough in 2017 (Photo: Scott Rylander)

The Finborough Theatre

New writing and neglected masterpieces are the Finborough Theatre’s main focus. The tiny size certainly doesn’t match the reputation this theatre has built since it was founded in 1980. Over the course of 30 years, the Finborough has established itself as one of the most brilliant venues of the London scene, while remaining proudly unsubsidised. Currently led by Artistic Director Neil McPherson, the Finborough has an inclusive programme aimed at bringing excellence to this intimate corner of West London, while the pub downstairs offers live music and a solid selection of beer.

118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED

The entrance of the Pentameters Theatre (Photo: Pentameters)

Pentameters Theatre

The Pentameters Theatre is deeply rooted in the local community of Hampstead, and is traditionally known for its artistic streak. Due to celebrate its 50th birthday in 2018, Pentameters belongs in the pantheon of London’s historic and most respected fringe theatres. Pre- and post-theatre dinners are provided by the Horseshoe Pub, which boasts a daily-changing menu, seasonal produce and craft beer. The Camden Town Brewery started here in the basement as a DIY attempt at making a few beers to serve upstairs, which turned out to be rather successful.

28 Heath Street (Entrance Oriel Place), London NW3 6TE