Monday, 22 February 2010


London has its major locations for the performing arts ... the Old Vic and the National when it comes to theatre, the Festival Hall and the Barbican when there's music involved. And they're fine and important places, for sure. But they're not what really makes this city the thriving cultural hotspot that it is. No, it's the hundreds of tiny little venues which do that, the nooks and crannies and the upstairs rooms where new ideas can be tried out, fresh talents flexed, minority tastes catered to and old triumphs revived. These places might turn a small profit, but they're mostly labours of love, kept going by people who genuinely care about the branch of the arts they're into. And I've been visiting a couple of them recently.

Come out at Waterloo Station, head down The Cut past the Old Vic and you'll eventually come to a big, Victorian-looking railway bridge. And tucked beneath the left side of the arch you'll find the Union Theatre, which has been there for a while and which I've visited a few times. They were showing a revival of Doug Lucie's 1980's hit 'Progress' on this occasion, a darkly funny satire about one of that decade's oddest creatures, the 'new man.' The auditorium must only take a hundred people at a squeeze, and the occasional train rumbles overhead during the performance, but that only makes your evening a more unique occasion. And the Union has a nice little bar which gets very bustly once the show is over; you can even chat with the cast of the play you've just been watching. And when do you get to do that at the National?

Then on Friday I went with my old pal Andy Snipper to a fairly new music spot, the Map Cafe in Kentish Town (pictured; copyright (c) Andy Snipper 2010). Downstairs it's a cosy eatery with friendly staff and good, inexpensive grub, the latter a massive rarity in London. But go up a steep flight of stairs at the back and you find yourself in a tiny club, laid out coffee-house style but with a bar. Pianist Leon Greening was the act that night. He and his trio started out playing some fairly standard mainstream jazz, but were then joined by renowned trumpeter Damon Brown who brought a welcome breath of 'cool' to the occasion, and the set really took off. All of this to a 'packed house' of about two dozen fans, ranging in age from eighteen to eighty. It was a lot more fun, believe me, than any mega concert at the Festival Hall.

So let's hear it for small. You can't globalize it. You can't corporatize it. You can't even control it very much. Small is what keeps our culture genuinely fresh, and the world would be a ... well ... a very much smaller place without it.

(You can read Andy's review of the Map Cafe and Leon Greening here).

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