I’m standing on the roof of the King’s Head theatre — a ramshackle former boxing ring behind a vintage Islington boozer — with its artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher, looking at the future.
London’s oldest pub theatre has hosted early performances from Hugh Grant, Joanna Lumley, Simon Russell Beale and Meera Syal. It staged premieres by Tom Stoppard and Steven Berkoff, gave Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues their first London outing and helped to restore the reputations of Terence Rattigan and Vivian Ellis. And if all goes to plan with a major fundraising effort this year, the venue will celebrate its 50th birthday in December in a £9 million, two-auditorium space built in the basement of the Edwardian Royal Mail sorting office I’m admiring, yards behind the current theatre.
“The King’s Head isn’t bricks and mortar,” says Spreadbury-Maher, 38, when I sit down with him and executive director Fiona English, 31, inside the pub. “It is that idea of trying something that hasn’t been tried before, giving a voice to someone who normally wouldn’t have one, looking back at something that may have been overlooked or forgotten.”
The theatre will continue the triple-pronged policy, evolved during Spreadbury-Maher’s 10-year tenure, of staging accessible opera in English translation, “LGBTQ-slash-Queer programming” and revivals of neglected post-war plays like Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carré and Sean Mathias’s A Prayer for Wings. There will still be a blend of in-house and externally produced work for which staff and performers will all, unusually for a fringe venue, get paid. It will continue to tour and transfer plays, and to act as a forcing ground for talent: Donmar boss Michael Longhurst, auteur Katie Mitchell and producer Kenny Wax also started out here, alongside countless technicians and actors.
But instead of the current 113-seat space there will now be an 85-seat studio, broadly for more experimental and radical work, including “unheard lesbian and trans voices”, and a larger, 250-seat auditorium. It’ll be the sort of room beloved by independent producers wanting to try things out, and it will enable Spreadbury-Maher to bring back past hits that have grown in scale — like the King’s Head productions of Trainspotting and Kevin Elyot’s Coming Clean — and to stage musicals.
The new home will be substantially more comfortable than the old. Asked by a waitress if he wanted anything during an interval back in the Eighties, the actor Murray Melvin reportedly replied: “An osteopath.” As well as nicer seats, English says, you will no longer “have to use your programme to protect yourself from leaks, and the dressing rooms won’t flood backstage. We don’t actually have an external wall at the back at the moment, just a layer of insulation.”
Although the new building will be more salubrious, English insists the King’s Head won’t lose its rough edges. At £9 million, it’s cheap for a new theatre and at first it will be kitted out with “cardboard boxes and plywood”. Though Spreadbury-Maher is right that a theatre is more than its bricks and mortar, location, history and atmosphere still matter. The new home is part of, and partly funded by, the Islington Square development of the vast former north London sorting office, which had been shut up for over 20 years. This enables them to stay close to their roots and their local audience “without it costing £100 million”.
You can actually touch the cellar wall of the pub from the bar and foyer of the new venue. Spreadbury-Maher notes that the sorting office “was, from Edwardian times and through two world wars, the nervous system of the British Empire’s communications”. English adds: “It looked after storytelling for London for so many decades, and now we are giving that back.”
Then there’s the legacy. In 1970 Dan Crawford, an Anglophile barman from the US city of Hackensack, New Jersey, scraped together the money to buy the pub’s lease and turned the back room into a performance space modelled on American dinner theatre. The first production was Boris Vian’s The Empire Builders, the first hit an adaptation of John Fowles’s novel The Collector.
The King’s Head was for a time the recipient of a small Arts Council grant, but mostly Crawford kept it afloat through drink sales (always listed in pounds, shillings and pence), the ghastly food he urged on punters in the theatre, and goodwill. Although he transferred several plays to the West End and Broadway, he never seemed to make any money from them.
A lanky figure with jutting eyebrows and a threadbare tweed jacket, Crawford would personally introduce shows on opening night and rattle a bucket by the door at the end. He was already in talks to move the theatre into Islington Square when he died of cancer in 2005, aged 62. His fourth wife and co-producer Stephanie kept going for five years but couldn’t profit from drink sales once Young’s took over the pub licence. Spreadbury-Maher took over in 2010. Originally an opera singer in Australia, he retrained as a director at Central drama school in 2005 and opened the Cock Tavern Theatre in 2008.
Was Crawford’s legacy — the success and the maverick eccentricity — a burden when he first took on the King’s Head? “Well, I made it an opera house for the first four years, so I wasn’t on his tails at all,” replies Spreadbury-Maher. Like Crawford, he’s an Anglophile and an enthusiast, who drinks tea from a Wedgwood teapot and has a thing about historic post boxes (“so it’s lovely we’re moving into a post office”).
He negotiated a then-pioneering payment agreement with Equity in 2012, and he and English — who joined him in 2017 partly to co-ordinate and fundraise for the move — enforce a raft of policies relating to diversity, sustainability and anti-bullying. They think moving to a scary new space is exactly what Crawford would have done and hope to name the studio after him.
They’ve got £2.3 million to find and have applied for a grant from the Mayor’s office. But there’s also a big fundraising gala at Porchester Hall on February 9 where Mark Gatiss, playwright Martin Sherman and other famous supporters will be in attendance. A book on the theatre’s history will be published in December.
Oh, and this year Spreadbury-Maher and English will run 50 marathons between them to raise £50,000. “Running 25 marathons in a year sounds like a stupid idea, and I say that as someone who loves running,” says English. “But Adam came up with it as a challenge and it is very hard to say no to him.” The move’s surely as good as done.