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Sadiq Khan and Amy Lamé: Please Protect Fringe Theatre

fringe theatre The Bedford, Balham, home to Theatre N16.

As Theatre N16 face eviction from Balham, Grumpy Gay Critic petitions the Mayor of London and his Night Czar to do more to protect fringe theatre.

Dear Sadiq Khan and Amy Lamé,

I can only imagine the busy lives of both a mayor and a czar, but I hope you’ll take a moment to read my letter. You see, I think you’re both doing a good job at trying to protect and preserve London’s marvellous culture, especially as you’ve already taken fantastic steps to secure the future of some crucial places of cultural significance in London: like the ongoing saga to ensure the Royal Vauxhall Tavern remains a bastion of queer performance, and ensuring that the redevelopment of the Joiners Arms includes an LGBTQI venue. However, what about fringe theatre?

Yes, some are doing great, such as the King’s Head moving to a bigger venue, Ovalhouse being rehomed in a purpose-built venue in Brixton, and there’s that new theatre being built in Streatham. But these success stories don’t happen all the time.

Theatre N16 are now being booted out of The Bedford in Balham after owners are decided they’re going to try and spruce up the historic building. The owners don’t see the “need” to keep a fringe theatre space at the top of the building. It’s a crying shame because N16 has produced some amazing work: 178 productions with a total audience number of 28,000 patrons so far! It’s the birthplace of fast-growing fantastic feminist writing festival Herstory, it shed light on historic injustice with Your Ever Loving, disturbed and perturbed audiences with the sensational This is Not Culturally Significant, and pushed boundaries with the now internationally acclaimed The Rules of Inflation. Then it’s hosted some brilliant visiting fringe theatre companies such as the daring and bold Boat looking at immigration and refugeeism.

Yes, the tenacity of our fringe theatre makers has seen some theatres live on elsewhere when unceremoniously evicted. Above the Stag is one such success story after managing to find a new home in Vauxhall (although are raising funds to move again), and the Southwark Playhouse moving from London Bridge to Elephant and Castle. But this is not always the case; the Greenwich Playhouse has never resurfaced since it got kicked out of Greenwich; the Landor Theatre is now a footnote in Clapham’s history books; and the Twickenham Theatre, after putting on an amazing show with two major West End stars, was snuffed out as quickly as it had sparked up.

I do fear for Theatre N16, even though founder and Executive Director Jamie Eastlake is a determined chap having already been moved on from Stoke Newington to resettle in Balham two years ago, as is recently appointed Artistic Director Scott Ellis. Whilst I have plenty of faith that this isn’t the end of Theatre N16 there’s still the possibility that they won’t be as fortuitous this time and we will end up losing yet another brilliant fringe theatre. What’s more, we could end up losing a fringe theatre that actually pays those who perform there in agreement with Equity, and has endeavoured to make sure visiting companies don’t leave the theatre after putting on a show without any debt. Theatre N16 is both an artistic and economic success.

I’m not going to start telling both of you how I think you should be doing your jobs (especially as I have no massive complaints thus far), but I really would like to see more done to protect our fringe theatre spaces from aggressive and/or short-sighted developers and landlords. Fringe theatre is an essential and exciting part of London culture. These theatres might be small and not as glamorous as those on Shaftsbury Avenue, but they’re as powerful, provocative, and need to be supported just as much as West End and off-West End venues.

I know that it might not be possible to directly help Theatre N16 at this point in time (unless you personally want to donate a few bob to their crowdfunding page to help them relocate) but I would really like to plead, as someone that deeply loves the London fringe, that more is done to protect our small theatre venues as they vitally important and at risk.

Keep up the good work, and stay away from blokes called Rasputin!
James Waygood
Grumpy Gay Critic