Sweet Smell of Success for drama on the fringe!

Seven years ago I took a wrong turn in Soho and found myself standing outside a little theatre which was advertising an upcoming production starring my favourite male actor. I was curious and astonished that this internationally known stage and screen star would be appearing on stage in a decidedly down-market part of London but I ventured inside – and discovered the world of the London fringe theatre.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 24th November 2012, 8:00 am

Since then I’ve gorged myself on some wonderful drama featuring names usually associated with the country’s finest productions. There are incredible perks to dabbling on the fringes of the West End.

Firstly I got to meet the actor mentioned above when we collided coming out of the Soho Theatre’s front door following his performance in Shoreditch Madonna (they don’t ever have anything as pretentious as a stage door). It led to me being invited to his gorgeous Earl’s Court home to interview him and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. It was he who opened my eyes to the potential of the fringe.

Since then I found myself in the coffee queue next to Rupert Everett at The Hampstead Theatre (the grandest and most mainstream of the fringes) where he was performing as Oscar Wilde (we chatted briefly about his splendid autobiography which I just happened to have on me); I’ve seen Ben Wishaw, Francesca Annis and Dunstable’s own Kathryn Hunter all at the Soho; Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney at the Menier Chocolate Factory; the lovely Rupert Friend at the Arcola; Joseph Fiennes with Edlesborough child actor Joe Ashman at the tiny Bush Theatre and the sensational Alan Cumming (sans underwear!) flying in from the ceiling in The Bachae at The Lyric Theatre.

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Fringe theatres are quirky and very cheap with the casts often coming out for a drink, chat and mingle in the theatre bar after a show. the audiences often feature their mates so they can be quite star-studded. When I first went to the Soho the ticket price was just £5 (at a time when the West End charged £40-plus) – and the box office apologised that they would soon be upping the tickets to a tenner!

The Menier (London Bridge tube) is actually in the bowels of a former chocolate factory and has a fantastic restaurant and art gallery on its ground floor. The mouth-watering Borough Market is just a few yards away and an addictive pleasure on a Saturday. Many theatres, like Islington’s King’s Head, are over pubs. Some feature just a handful of seats and you wonder how it can make economic sense to use it as a performance space.

But a lot of top actors enjoy the thrill of no frills productions and a lot of comedians use the tiny audiences to try out material before launching themselves on national tours. They really are a hidden gem.

Last Saturday I went back to The Arcola (Dalston) to see a tremendous show that I’d recommend to everyone. Sweet Smell of Success is a huge production being staged in modest surroundings. This British premiere really ought to be on a mainstream stage and be charging punters at least £50 a ticket.

Instead it’s crammed in the eco-friendly Arcola where the staff make you feel welcome, the venue boasts outstanding green credentials (it’s so carbon neutral that even its beer and crisps are produced just around the corner), the bar is presided over by a very lovely guy and it puts on some cracking productions.

Rupert Friend was mesmerising in Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle before he jetted off to Hollywood and a part in Channel 4’s Homeland and now David Bamber and Adrian der Gregorian give remarkable performances in Sweet Smell Of Success.

Set in early 1950s New York it probes the sleazy world of celebrity journalism where one big name columnist has the power to make or break the rich and powerful.

JJ Hunsecker (a delightfully seedy performance from Bamber) is based on the real life NY Daily Mirror gossip columnist Walter Winchell whose pages were devoured by 50 million people a day. Agents begged and bribed to get their clients mentioned, some begged to have their names wiped from the record. There has never been such power by one person before or since.

Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis starred in the movie version but here the story is set to the music of the award-winning composer Marvyn Hamlisch and it’s a thrilling, high energy, production with some superb performances, musically and dramatically.

Bamber’s immoral journo makes your flesh creep while der Gregorian and Stuart Matthew Price (as piano player and jazz singer Dallas) give knockout solos in front of the mic.

It really is worth a visit. Go online to find out more about London’s fringe theatres.