Approaching its 600th birthday, there cannot be a more intimate, thrilling theatre experience than Islington’s Old Red Lion. Damien Devine, owner and Artistic Director, tells Mark Kebble how it feels to be overseeing such a major milestone
First things first, 600 years old – wow… How does it feel to be here for this landmark occasion?
It’s an honour. Six hundred years… When I think about all the previous landlords who have been here it’s astonishing. I’m a leaseholder here, so it’s just a brief tenure [in terms of its history]. What does frighten me is the amount of pubs that have closed over the last five years – all that history has evaporated.
How did you originally get involved with the Old Red Lion Theatre and when was that?
It’s a family business [they first took over in 2000]. One of my nephews is an historian. He’s looking back at the history of the pub – one thing we need to verify is the date, 1415. That’s on the front of the pub, but we have only got one or two pieces of the previous style. We think it was burnt down in the 19th century, which is why they rebuilt it. So we are trying to independently verify the date and have so far got back to 1527. One record we have is startling – it’s about the discovery of a body. There wasn’t a mortuary, but there was a death and the body was left out in attic for several days until the local judiciary came in. It was a sword duel and it was noted there was a death that was followed to order – that was more important than there being a death!
But if you say 1415 to a child, they will say the Battle of Agincourt. I can’t believe there’s not a connection, there’s the heraldic aspect in the lion. But we are not hung up on the date – after all, that’s what is on front of the building, so we are going to celebrate the day. This is the Great Northern Road, the backbone of the country. There’s a lot of history written and recorded about this road.
The other major thing we want to do is, as we are a theatre, we are going to produce a play. We are already talking about it, whether to commission a playwright or to do it ourselves. If we want to produce and direct in house we have the skills to do it. We will make a decision on that by the end of the year. We plan for that to go up for three weeks in May or June – we decided that halfway through the year will be the birth day!
Looking at the theatre, do you think it offers one of the most intimate experiences in London?
There are probably others, but when people are looking for an intimate theatre space the Old Red Lion will be the first that comes to mind. The actors love it as much as the audience. There’s a lot of fondness for the intimacy here. We haven’t really changed much, we have just focused on the quality of productions. Also, why not call it a theatre pub? We are proud about that. It’s unique the way it is. This is a professional theatre, but it’s also a great boozer and that’s how we want it. If in the theatre and you hear a cheer downstairs in the pub because a goal has been scored, that’s all part of the experience!
What has been your artistic direction for what you’ve staged?
I love new writing. We have to have a balance, but we are not scared of taking an artistic risk. We have built up a great reputation with actors, directors and writers and they keep coming back.
And do you have plans for beyond your 600th anniversary?
We are doing a bit of a refurb – there’s always something that needs money spent on it, in the theatre or the pub. We have just put in a much-needed air conditioning unit in the theatre and next year we will start on downstairs. People worry when you say refurb, but there’s nothing to fear. The community really do care!
Find out the latest information at oldredliontheatre.co.uk