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Pub theatres fear being muscled out of rescue cash by West End venues

Fringe playhouses ‘where it all begins’ are desperate for a share of government virus funding

21 August, 2020 — By Calum Fraser

Damien Devine at the Old Red Lion

PUB theatres have called on the government not to overlook smaller outlets in the next round of arts funding amid fears they will be competing against huge West End venues.

The Old Red Lion in St John Street, Angel, is among scores of arts venues across the country hoping for a slice of the £1.57billion Arts Council funding made available amid the coronavirus crisis. The application window closes today (Friday).

The pub theatre was founded 40 years ago and has become a cornerstone of the fringe scene.

Damien Devine, who took over in 2000, told the Tribune that they could be “rolled over” if he can’t put shows on and get funding in soon.

He said that the scales were tipped against the smaller independent venues as they have to get their head around grant applications, while some of the bigger places have allegedly been able to hire “professional bid writers”.

“We have been here 20 years and we have never asked for a penny from anyone,” he said. “We don’t even have the skillset to apply.

“We’re pulling our hair out because we don’t know what we’re doing or who we’re doing it for, we don’t know what the parameters are. We don’t know if they’re [Arts Council] going to laugh at us or pat us on the back. God knows what the outcome is going to be.”

James Ren

The Old Red Lion business has been built on a mix of locals, staff from City University and City and Islington Sixth Form College, office workers and people attending the nearby Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Except for local people, everyone has disappeared.

Mr Devine said: “Upper Street seems to be getting back together with ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, but if you turn left out of Angel [tube] there’s nothing. It’s only cleaning staff going in and out of the office block here and The City is deserted.”

The Old Red Lion missed out on the government’s small business grant because its rateable value is higher than the £51,000 threshold. A reduced rent deal from the landlord runs out at the end of this month, while the government’s furlough scheme is set to be wrapped up in October.

The government announced the arts funding, which will run from October to March, last month after pressure from music venues, theatres and galleries. Culture minister Oliver Dowden said it had two broad aims – to preserve “crown jewel” venues like the Royal Albert Hall and national galleries, while also helping local institutions across the UK.

James Ren, the artistic director of the Hen and Chicken theatre at Highbury Corner, echoed Mr Devine’s fears.

He said: “We are in trouble, that is for sure. We are like everyone else applying for funds, but no luck so far.

“There is a fine line you have to dance with all these forms. It is definitely geared towards the bigger venues, but what people always forget is the entry level venues is where this all starts – the actors’ first show, writers’ first script. The system starts as fringe theatre.”

He added: “We are determined to stay alive, by hook or by crook. We are applying for National Lottery funding now.”

Mr Dowden said the government was working to get the rescue package out as quickly as possible, “so that we can protect and preserve our precious culture, arts and heritage for future generations”.

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