London is the perfect place for theatre lovers. There is always something new to watch with an abundance of famous west end musicals, classic plays, and new independent productions. One of the types of theatre that can sometimes be forgotten is fringe theatre which are small-scale productions that are often non-traditional in style, have fewer actors, and are produced outside of the prominent theatre institutions. This type of theatre can be thought-provoking and politically motivated, offering something new to an audience. In short, fringe theatres in London should be at the top of your itinerary.
Fringe theatres are all over London and can offer just as much excitement and entertainment as West End shows. Lost of popular West End shows started as a piece of fringe theatre, such as The Play That Goes Wrong which originally opened at the Red Lion Theatre above a pub. Who knows, maybe that small-scale production could end up being a hit show that could take the world by storm a few years later.
Location: Elephant and Castle
Opened in 1993, Southwark Playhouse has two performance spaces, seating 200 and 100 people. Their venues are based in Elephant and Castle, one named Southwark Playhouse Borough and the other named Southwark Playhouse Elephant. They put on a variety of different shows, from musicals to new plays, with a key focus on breathing new life into classics. Southwark Playhouse prides itself in showcasing work by a diverse array of talented theatre professionals who are at different stages of their careers.
The theatre opened to create a well-resourced and accessible theatre space that would serve as a location to showcase new productions by emerging theatre artists and would be a place that the local community could become a part of. It is one of London’s leading theatres and has an extensive programme of world-class theatre.
Location: Shephard’s Bush
Bush Theatre first lived above a pub, like many fringe theatres, which held only 80 people, but in 2010, Josie Rourke, the then-artistic director, moved the theatre to a neighbouring old public library building. This theatre is now one of the city’s most influential artistic spaces for new plays and is an internationally renowned champion of playwrights. They nurture and produce the best new playwrights from various backgrounds and look for new voices in the industry that can tell contemporary stories with wit, style, and passion.
The theatre is interested in works that are provocative and entertaining and have produced hundreds of groundbreaking premieres since its opening in 1972.
Theatre503 is said to ‘offer more new writing opportunities than anywhere else in the country’. If you are interested in writing, the theatre accepts script submissions at different points of the year, believing it’s a crucial way to keep the industry open to new and upcoming writers; the writing prize offers the writer £6000 and a guaranteed production at the theatre. What’s even better is that a lot of their productions transfer to bigger venues.
They specialise in ground-breaking plays and stage over 300 shows a year. The Guardian said it was ‘arguably the most important theatre in Britain today’.
Charing Cross Theatre
Location: Charing Cross
Under the arches at Charing Cross Station lies Charing Cross Theatre, operating since 1864. The current management is committed to presenting affordable theatrical productions to the highest standards, as well as maintaining a collaborative atmosphere where professionals can work with emerging talent.
This ‘hidden gem’ venue offers an exciting mix of drama, musicals, comedy, cabaret, and even late-night shows. Their diverse programme has something for everyone.
Jermyn Street Theatre – St James’s
In the heart of the West End, this London fringe theatre is home to remarkable artists and plays with a welcoming and intimate setting. World-class, household-name playwrights, directors, and actors have worked here across the years, as well as new talent who are taking their first steps in the world of theatre. The theatre holds new plays, revivals, new versions of European classics, and high-quality musicals. They collaborate with theatres across the world, and some of their productions have been transferred to the West End and Broadway.
Founded in 1994 with no core funding from the government or the Arts Council, this theatre has thrived, and in 2017, Jeremy Street Theatre became a producing theatre, the smallest in London’s West End. In 2021, this London fringe theatre won the Stage Award for Fringe Theatre of the Year – the first theatre to win the award twice.
Location: West Brompton
The multi-award-winning Finborough Theatre offers productions on thought-provoking text-based new writing, as well as revisiting neglected works from the 19th and 20th centuries. Founded in 1980, this theatre has a brilliant track record of producing excellent work, and although they are on par with larger subsidised theatres, they remain completely unfunded and maintain the freedom and intimacy of their venue above a pub in Earl’s Court.
They have transferred some of their productions to the West End and Off-Broadway, and some of their plays have gone on to be seen across the world, in locations such as the USA, South Africa, and Australia. Finborough Theatre is a great choice if you’re looking for an iconic venue that will give you something new and inspiring to watch.
Old Red Lion Theatre
First opening its doors in 1979, The Old Red Lion Theatre is one of London’s oldest and most loved theatre venues. This Off-West End theatre homes ambitious and challenging theatre, ranging from world premieres of new plays to revivals of big productions from throughout history.
They pride themselves in supporting the UK’s most exciting artists at crucial stages of their careers and presenting work that challenges audiences and connects people to communities that aren’t always seen on stage. The Old Red Lion Theatre has also recently been chosen as one of the must-visit Off-West End theatres in London.
Location: Finsbury Park
Only opened in 2013, this theatre was converted from a vacant office block next to the station. This London fringe theatre is a neighbourhood theatre with a global ambition. Like many fringe theatres, Park Theatre houses a mixture of new writing and modern revivals and collaborates with existing and emerging talent on stage and behind the scenes.
The theatre tells accessible, real stories, with content that resonates and reflects the world around us and nearby neighbourhoods They want the theatre to be exemplary in its accessibility to its diverse community and beyond. Park Theatre provides affordable tickets and outreach programmes to engage people with little or no experience in theatre.
Being a huge part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, delivering a huge programme of theatre, comedy, cabaret, dance, and family shows, Pleasance Theatre has a year-round home in London to provide a platform for leading and emerging talent to develop and hone their craft and grow new audiences. The programme at Pleasance London is parallel with Pleasance Edinburgh. Their venue in London has three performance spaces – the Cabaret Main House, The Studio, and Downstairs.
This London fringe theatre is committed to providing support, mentorship, and funding to artists through eight different initiatives. It is a theatre which is on the rise and worth a look at their programme.
Orange Tree Theatre
This London fringe theatre is an award-winning, independent theatre, that creates high-quality productions of new and rediscovered plays. They have around 70,000 visitors across the UK every year. Located in South West London, this intimate theatre has its audience seated all around the stage, creating a unique experience compared to other fringe theatres in London.
Orange Tree Theatre believes in powerful dramatic stories to entertain, thrill, and challenge people and plays that enrich our lives by enhancing our understanding of ourselves and each other. They work with 10000 people in Richmond and beyond as a registered charity through participatory theatre projects for everyone in the community.
As you can see, London’s fringe theatres are just as impressive as the major West End productions. And if you are looking for more London inspiration, check out these best things to do in London alone or the best west London parks.
By Cara-Louise Scott
Cara-Louise Scott is a UoB graduate now living as a hotel waitress in London. She has a passion for writing about all things travel, food, and mental health. She will be studying her part-time NCTJ course in autumn to become a qualified journalist.