Next door to the British Library sits a plush, crimson-covered 1970s auditorium. One of three spaces left in the capital with the same scale and design – the Bloomsbury and Leicester Square Theatre joining rank – it’s notable (fact fans) for its 20/20 sightlines. Which, quite simply, means that it boasts perfect views from every row – so no knock-off, behind-a-pillar seats. “All other similar theatres in the capital,” says venue manager Ellen Frost, “have been closed down or turned into conference spaces.”
Named after Irish literary legend Bernard Shaw, who used to live in the area, the venue is a hotbed of theatrical activity, boasting one of the most eclectic programmes in town. Wander in on any given evening and there’s as much chance of winding up in, say, a Jack and the Beanstalk pantomime as a Circus of Horrors performance, International Mime Festival or the World Burlesque Games.
“We’re a hire venue, owned by the Pullman Hotel,” says Ellen. “As such we don’t put on our own shows but leave the space up for the pitching. Sometimes I contact people, other times they bring their ideas to me.”
With the Burlesque Games for example, Ellen first saw the performers – in all their tattoo-covered, fire breathing, tantalising splendour – at the Hackney Moth club, spoke to the organiser and invited them to perform at the Shaw.
“That was a huge success,” says Ellen, with the result that other promoters came to the venue and decided it was the perfect set-up for their shows too. Having just signed a contract to host this year’s London Burlesque Festival in April, “at this rate,” she says, “we might be inadvertently turning into a burlesque venue.”
“In general, if someone pitches an idea and they’re really excited and passionate, I think we might as well give it a go; it’ll be fun.”
Recently, the Shaw has been occupying itself with a project beyond filling its programme with a mishmash selection of weird and wonderful acts. Having spent the last two years managing the venue, Ellen has become accustomed to having discussions with performers and audience members alike – all of whom vaguely recall being at Shaw many years before.
“It happened with Graham Gouldman, from British rock band 10cc just a few months back, and with musical theatre star Shona White, who, it turns out, did her first showcase here.”
Indeed, although the Shaw opened in 1971, having lost all of their records when ownership passed from Camden Council to the Pullman Hotel, there were more than a few pieces missing from the puzzle.Ellen already knew that the Shaw holds the record for the shortest running musical of all time – it opened and closed on the same day. She was aware of the fact that before it transformed into a theatre, it was a concert venue, where people like Van Morrison performed. She also knew that this was the last place that Eddie Izzard performed before his set was recorded at the Ambassadors Theatre and he launched into the big time.
But she wanted to know more. As such, Ellen decided that it was time to take a trip down memory lane, and trace the venue’s history. Under the hashtag #ShawHistory she asked people to send in their memories of the theatre, and, got some really interesting responses.
“So far, we’ve found out that Shaw was opened by Princess Margaret and Elton John. He was a huge promoter of the National Youth Theatre (NYT), who were based here when Shaw opened,” says Ellen. “This means that our stage has hosted many of the greats, like Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen. Elton did a benefit concert to raise money here and someone sent in a clip in which he states that he’s at the Shaw, raising money for NYT.”
Ellen was also sent photos and videos from Queen’s pre-Live Aid warm-up and snaps of George Michael on stage.
Meanwhile, on the 30th anniversary of the tragic King’s Cross fire – which set the station alight on 18th Nov 1987 after someone dropped their cigarette on a wooden escalator – someone tweeted a photo of the ticket for the show they’d seen at Shaw that night.
“I contacted him straight away,” says Ellen, “asking him to tell me more about the evening, was the show cancelled, what had happened. He replied saying that the show went on but they all left a little bemused as to why King’s Cross had just shut down.”
With all the information they have foraged over the last few months, the Shaw have adorned their walls in a series of posters, flyers and artefacts, setting up an exhibition to celebrate all the icons who have taken to their stage.
Pride of place in the exhibit area are a couple of snaps of the theatre’s namesake Bernard Shaw. Looking very out-of-character as he proudly clutches a surfboard in one and sunbathes in a pair of trunks in the other, the images contrast the generic, scholar-clutching-beard shots we have become accustomed to when we think of the playwright.
“People always ask about the connection between the theatre and the writer,” says Ellen. “There really isn’t any link other than the name. The shots are a really good representation of the sort of theatre we are: we really don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
Meanwhile, we’re left wondering whether Bernie would have been more of a Circus of Horrors or burlesque fan?