How Islington is giving the West End a run for its money

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Alice Jones ventures beyond theatreland to experience the vibrant fringe where 'The King's Speech' first cleared its throat

To the untrained eye, Upper Street in Islington is just another of London's Nappy Valleys, a thoroughfare crammed with buggies, Brora and designer bakeries. But look past the chichi boutiques and restaurants and wander a little beyond the quiet, leafy terraces and gastropub gardens and you'll find a rather different Islington. Hidden in tiny theatres, studios, pubs and back rooms is an arts fringe that is shaping culture – and winning awards – from London to LA.

The King's Speech, which won four Oscars, seven Baftas and has so far taken $337m (£208m) worldwide, began life in the dingy 54-seater studio upstairs at the Pleasance Theatre, off the Caledonian Road, in 2007. Squashed on to the buttock-numbing benches for the read-through of David Seidler's original play was Meredith Hooper, mother of the (now Oscar-winning) director, Tom Hooper, who rang her son after the performance and told him she had found his next film script. Seidler, who also won an Oscar for his script, now plans to return to where it all began and premiere his next play at the tiny theatre.

A brisk walk down the road is the King's Head, home of OperaUpClose, a company founded less than two years ago, which on Sunday night swiped the Olivier award for best new opera production from under the noses of a trio of giants – the Royal Opera House, the London Coliseum and the Young Vic – with their 21st-century Soho take on La Bohème.

And, around the corner from the pub, is the Almeida, which announced this week that Stephen Poliakoff will direct the world premiere of My City, his first new play in 12 years, at the theatre in September. It will be followed in November by the European premiere of Neil LaBute's Reasons to be Pretty, fresh from Broadway and the sixth play the American playwright has staged at the 325-seat theatre, his "English home", since 2000.

They are just three of the institutions making N1 the most agenda-setting arts postcode since the capital's painters and sculptors flocked to the warehouses of Shoreditch in the early Noughties. Bookended by the Almeida at the top end of Upper Street and Sadler's Wells towards Exmouth Market, the streets between are home to more than 10 theatres and many more pub studios and back rooms where everyone from Harold Pinter to Russell Brand have debuted new work.

The theatre director Katie Mitchell started her career at the Old Red Lion and last year another star was born under the low ceilings of the 60-seat pub theatre when Max (son of Jeremy) Irons made his stage debut in Tom Stoppard's Artist Descending a Staircase. Next month, Irons stars opposite Amanda Seyfried in the new Hollywood blockbuster, Red Riding Hood, from the Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke.

And down in an Angel back-alley, the box-office busting trend for puppetry on stage, as seen in War Horse and Avenue Q, has its roots in a ruined temperance hall. There, 50 years ago last week, Lyndie and John Wright (the parents of Atonement director Joe Wright) set up the Little Angel Theatre as the "home of British puppetry".

It's not just theatre, either. On Highbury Corner the Hen and Chickens theatre pub has staged early sets from Russell Brand, the Mighty Boosh and Harry Hill in its top-floor studio and is still the place to catch comedians on their way to the arenas. Only last year Jimmy Carr showed up with 100 new jokes to roadtest on the discerning crowd, whom he later rewarded with Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Further down towards Exmouth Market, the Wilmington Arms is setting itself up as pretender to its crown. At the monthly night run by the sketch troupe Ladygarden, it's not unusual to see stars from Peep Show's Isy Suttie to Lenny Henry performing to a 40-strong crowd, spot Jennifer Saunders at the bar or bump into Ash Atalla, the producer of The Office, scouting for new talent.

The stained-glass splendour of Union Chapel, too, has become a favourite with comedians – Daniel Kitson, Stephen Merchant and Adam Buxton – as well as stadium-fillers such as Elton John, Bono and the Killers, looking for intimacy. For all of these creative types, Islington offers a space to experiment away from the bright lights and ruinous rents of the West End. Last year, the veteran theatre and opera director Jonathan Miller denounced the West End's "intoxication" with celebrities, declaring that he hadn't been to the theatre in 10 years.

But he did go and see OperaUpClose's La Bohème, says the company's artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher, 29. "And before I could open my mouth to say 'Hello', he said to me, 'I have to direct here'."

More than that, the Islington fringe, with its small-is-beautiful creed, shoestring budgets and cheap ticket prices could also act as a model for the arts institutions around the country waiting to see where Arts Council cuts will fall at the end of March.

Spreadbury-Maher, who also runs the Cock Theatre tavern in nearby Kilburn, opened London's Little Opera House at the King's Head in May 2010. With tickets priced between £10 and £22.50 (about a tenth of what you might pay in the stalls at Covent Garden), punters can enjoy their Puccini and still have change for a pint in the bar. after the performance. "We don't receive any funding at all," says Spreadbury-Maher. "The only money we make comes from the box office."

The theatre's hand-to-mouth existence is no hindrance to creativity They have six shows in rep, including a Bangkok-set Madam Butterfly with Pinkerton as an American Airlines pilot. Next month the renowned playwright Mark Ravenhill will make his opera debut in the 107-seat theatre, directing his updated, jazz-inflected version of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea.

"We're the only opera company in the world that is open seven nights a week, 365 days a year. We now produce more new opera a year than the Royal Opera House and English National Opera combined," says Spreadbury-Maher. "The fringe is the most exciting place to be and the most important place to find new work in London."

The King's Head has long been at the heart of the fringe. The capital's first pub theatre was set up in 1970 by Dan Crawford in the back room of the Victorian saloon, using curtains and lamps filched from the Theatre Royal Haymarket and the Lyric Theatre.

Over the years it has staged new plays by Steven Berkoff and Andrew Davies and seen early performances from Victoria Wood, Joanna Lumley and Prunella Scales, among others.

Ten years later, Pierre Audi set up his avant-garde theatre in a former music hall and Salvation Army citadel, around the corner on Almeida Street and the Islington theatre scene took off. Michael Attenborough, the artistic director of the Almeida for the past 10 years, believes that it is the area's social mix – where bankers' mews houses rub shoulders with deprived estates – which makes Islington an intriguing place for artists.

"It's an extraordinarily polarised borough. So you have some fairly well-heeled middle-class families in the smarter squares and then our neighbours are Tower Hamlets and Haringey," he says.

"We do have a stalwart audience that knows and trusts us. But a lot of shows can attract up to 40 per cent of first-time visitors. It really is an extraordinary mix of a local and an international theatre."

So while the area's more affluent residents may help to keep its many institutions afloat, Islington has become an arts destination in its own right, now rivalling the West End for venues per capita.

If further proof were needed of its burgeoning start-up arts scene, look no further than the two Red Lions. Last year, Damien Devine, landlord of the Old Red Lion, closed his other pub, the ailing Sportsman on City Road.

In October, he reopened it as the New Red Lion, complete with a studio and a programme of theatre and comedy: Richard Herring has already headlined.

"It's a subversion of expectations in tough economic times, to close a pub and reopen it as an arts venue", says Will Young, its spokesman.

"But it actually seems to make more money as a theatre pub than it does as just a pub. There's a critical mass of theatres in Islington now. You can make a success of it."

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?