To be honest I don’t usually drink when I go to the theatre, partly because I have a bladder the size of a walnut, but primarily because it is so cripplingly expensive. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry recently when a very modest round for myself and three friends at the London Palladium came to over £30, and from that day on I have stuck religiously to tap water. However, if you forget about the overpriced tipples served in fragile plastic glasses in the West End, you will discover an array of theatres where the bars are as much of an attraction as what is happening on the stage. From the live music in the National Theatre’s foyer before a show, to the Old Vic’s Pit Bar hosting live Pit Sessions deep into the night, theatre bars are turning into a great place to be whether your aims are artistic or hedonistic.
Yet by far the liveliest theatre bar I have ever been to, ironically, doesn’t really know it is one. The restaurant and bar at Theatre Royal Stratford East is a modern appendage with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that open onto a decked seating area, tucked around the side of the grand gold and red façade of the theatre itself. To see it during the day it just looks like any ordinary cafe; however of an evening it transforms into a noisy, vibrant hangout for crowds of locals dancing to the resident DJ, joined by the theatre’s performers after curtain down. The bar entertainment is even listed on the front page of their website, right next to the plays being staged in the main theatre.
My first thought on seeing this busy, lively bar was not only that the theatre must have pretty impressive sound-proofing but that it was clearly doing something right to attract such a diverse, young and local audience through its doors. However, after I sat down and started chatting randomly to one of the punters (let’s call him Tony), who had travelled across London just to hang out there, I quickly realised that I had been sorely mistaken. Indeed, despite having been coming to the bar for months, Tony didn’t even know it was attached to a theatre until I told him (the neon red ‘Theatre Royal’ and ‘Box Office’ signs on the wall clearly weren’t a big enough hint), and neither did he have the slightest desire to visit it once he was enlightened. He came for the drink, the food, the music and the women. Each to their own of course – yet I can’t shake this nagging feeling that the theatre is missing a trick. When I started to look around properly I realised that, aside from a few photographs of the glory days of Theatre Workshop that hung in the toilets, the bar gave little indication that it belonged to a theatre. There was one solitary poster for the current production on the wall (which could have easily been mistaken as a museum piece rather than current marketing), and no piles of leaflets on the bar or tables.
In fairness, Theatre Royal Stratford East has an impressive range of schemes and productions to attract new audiences, and its philosophy has always been one of improving access and providing a real service to the local community. Maybe the theatre bar brings in such good revenue that they can’t risk turning people away by increasing the theatre’s visible presence. However, I just can’t help but feel that there’s something not quite right when a theatre has new, potential audiences coming through their doors every single night, but those audiences never even realise where they really are, or what world of possibilities lurk just the other side of a closed door.