Still under the Artistic Direction of Peter Bull, who founded the theatre in 2008 above The Stag pub in the side streets of Victoria station, the venue has moved twice – arriving a decade later on the Albert Embankment, south of the Thames.
There’s a fabulous atmosphere in the cafe bar at the front. Everything from the furnishings to the team is stylish, relaxed, fresh and dynamic. Two performance spaces are beyond; the main house is a 100 seater, and there is a smaller 60 seater studio too. As one might expect, all details are meticulously well judged and delivered, from the balance of intimacy and proximity to the stage in the theatres, to the tasty and well-priced food prepared by The Bear Chefs.
Originally set up to host plays and musicals, with an emphasis on new work touching on gay themes, the theatre has increasingly attracted interest and support from many corners of the entertainment community. Patrons Lord Michael Cashman CBE (Eastenders), Su Pollard (Hi-de-Hi!), Andy Bell (singer of 1980s band Erasure) have given it plenty kudos and the result has been a theatre emerging with significant quality and appeal.
Early productions at the original Victoria location included American Briefs, a series of short works by US-based playwrights, Busted Jesus Comix, based on the real-life story of a Florida minor prosecuted on obscenity charges for writing a comic book, and The Choir by Australian playwright Errol Bray. But over the last ten years, as the excitement around this venue has grown, writers including Jonathan Harvey have been drawn into the circle of invested, committed creatives. Just this year alone successes have ranged from Maurice, based on the work by E. M. Forster and adapted by Roger Parsley and Andy Graham, to Grindr THE OPERA (nominated for 5 Off West End awards) which returns for a limited run in January. The venue is now firmly delivering knock-out works with a talented cast and crew. In no uncertain terms, it has arrived.
In June the theatre opened at its new location with Harvey’s celebrated Beautiful Thing, who followed it up in October with a rekindling of his 1990s play Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club, both of which have received heaps of five star praise.
It was Rupert Street that we went to see in November and were greeted with a warm reception in the cafe bar that was filling up early with urbane types. The play was on in the studio; the stage set between a handful of seating rows along either side. The action was close. The scene was the interior of a cosy London studio flat, with a large double bed and candle-lit lounge area in front. The occasional rumble of trains overhead seemed perfectly apt.
Though chiefly revolving around the relationship between two brothers, one gay one straight, the company they keep, packed with delicious camp one-liners, clever puns and outrageous revelations, the message is universal. Whatever gender or orientation, love and loss hurts. Truth is harder, more painful to indulge in than diversion, humour and self-delusion.
Shaun and Marti (played by Tom Whittaker and Hal Geller) are brothers from Harvey’s hometown of Liverpool. Their lives and relationships are far from orderly and these two lost souls are locked onto each other for direction and emotional support. The world outside is comprised of Dean, Marti’s trans clubbing friend (played by Myles Devonte), a needy neighbour George (played by Amy Dunn) and Clarine, an eccentric and unbalanced force of nature (Phoebe Vigor). The chemistry in the script is brought to life with humorous and sensitive portrayals all round but it is perhaps the girls, as I heard Su Pollard say after the performance, who really steal the show.
“It wouldn’t be Harvey
if there wasn’t a little bit of darkness and blood
Performances aside, in Harvey’s world, all these characters are equal; equally lost, equally lonely, equally searching for love. It wouldn’t be Harvey though if there wasn’t a little bit of darkness and blood, and before the lights go down, we are given a glass full of drama.
The Music of Musicals (The Musical!) by Joanne Bogart and Eric Rockwell is currently running until 22 December. Why choose between Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Kander & Ebb or Jerry Herman, the spiel on the website asks, when you can have them all?
The very adult Christmas Panto Mother Goose Cracks One Out by John Bradfield and Martin Hooper, continues its run through to 12 January. Promising a riot of silliness and filth all wrapped up with everyone’s favourite pantomime punchlines and extra spice, it’s likely to be a roaring success.
The theatre aims to build on the solid developments of 2018 by bringing back Erik Ransom’s Grindr THE OPERA for a month long run (starting mid-January), described by The Economist as “a tale of humanity struggling with love in all its forms”. Nominated for five Off West End (Offie) awards last year, Above The Stag is setting the bar high for it’s first show of 2019.
A special one night event is scheduled, and already sold out, for 6 February. Ian McKellen On Stage is a solo show in which the hugely successful and renowned actor celebrates his 80th birthday by visiting his favourite venues around the country sharing memories and anecdotes. McKellen is putting all profits from this performance back into the theatre, to help with additional sound-proofing of the main house.
What a seal of approval!