A Brief History of Obscure London Theatres

Just when you think you’re wrong—
it-absolutely-cannot-be-down-this-road-what-a-dusty-old-
corner-of-the-city-why-even-stray-cats-don’t-lurk-here

—you’re there.

Past petrol stations, past bus stops, past closed convenience stores and open barbershops where men are having invisible bits snipped from their thinning fringe; past kebab houses with £1 pound pizzas and pale, wan meat spinning sullenly in the corner: the very edge, with all its peripheral goings-on.

And there, rising above the steamy sidewalks, peeking through the mist: a most improbable theatre. Why here? You climb rickety metal stairs. Below you, the next-door pub’s beer garden sprawls; early drunks guzzle silently and watch the first other human souls they’ve seen all day (everything else is steel and concrete and cold) disappear into the vast innards of a space constructed mostly of emptiness.

In one small pocket of the place, later, an audience will roar and a performer, or several, will hold crowded court—but there will be no overcoming the emptiness, and though you sweat with the presence of so many other breathing beings, there is no chance of claustrophobia, because there is no city but the quiet city around you.

Do they put these places here deliberately, so that the getting there is itself a journey, and you are so introspective by the time you arrive and so alienated from the world around you that you have no choice but to dive completely into whatever it is you’ve come to see? Later, you have a drink or two at the theatre bar and there is the after-performance buzz, but the hollowness of the building drives you back outside, into the maddeningly foreign tangle of alleyways and boulevards. Do they put them here to make you uncomfortable? Do they put them here just because it is cheap? For poetry would demand the former be true; but reality might suggest that Occam’s Razor holds strong, and the mundane explanation wins out.

I, for one, never knew how far London stretches; how thinly it becomes spread. After an hour and a quarter in a double-decker bus at night, with the dull sound of people filing in and out beside you, an hour and a quarter of fits and starts, of brakes slammed, the beeping of the door as it opens and closes, the jolt forward, the tumbling of human figures down a narrow aisle, the buzz of someone else’s music—after that you start to think that you could drive forever and never leave London.

Or when you surface from the tube (huge towering escalator after huge towering escalator until you find yourself saying, “how can we have been so far underground and not started to feel the heat from the core of the earth?”) and there is nothing but asphalt around you, nothing but asphalt and the shambles of buildings that are not cared for and loved as they should be—the remoteness strikes you, but there was stop after stop after stop still left on the line when you got off.

And standing strong, in all these places that are like the bowels of the city, and yet outside the city, you feel, there are places for play and performance. The night stretches like a cat all around you, and the city settles into itself, and though it will never cease to amaze you, you settle in, too.