The Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington has been one of London’s leading fringe venues for more than seventy years, playing home to an eclectic mix of works. But in this latest entertaining (if rather uneven) production, the venue itself falls under the spotlight, along with those that have frequented the pub that has been on the site for more than 600 years.

As one might expect from a place with such a long and rich history, the Old Red Lion has a fair number of stories linked to it. This was the hostelry of choice for diverse drinkers from Charles Dickens to Josef Stalin and Lenin, who is said to have used the pub’s dumb waiter to eavesdrop on meetings by the British Communist Party taking place upstairs. Over the years, the building has also housed a billiard hall and a boxing ring.

The idea behind this docu-play (as it is billed), poses the question, “what if some of this rich tapestry of characters never left, and their spirits still wander the building playing tricks?” The cellar was once a morgue (a gift for the set-up of any ghost story).

It’s an intriguing idea and theatre troupe turned paranormal investigators The Knock Knock Club set out on a mission of research, interviews and an actual ghost hunt to investigate.

If you’re not quite sure what a docs-play is, that kind of sums up the problem with this production. It’s an uneven blend of dramatisation and lecture that works only sporadically.

Things get of to a superbly atmospheric start with a dramatic monologue from Reece Connolly and there is a similarly effective section later on in the seventy-minute production when the cast recount the story of a highwayman and a bloody duel that took place in the pub’s yard.

But between these moments, the “facts” are presented far too drily with comedic asides that don’t sit comfortably. There’s nothing wrong with introducing humour but it would have been more effective if it had been kept dark to suit the subject. One piece of audience participation destroys any mood at all.

The three players fall neatly, perhaps too neatly, into Believer (Connolly), Agnostic (Caroline Buckley) and Sceptic (Christopher Keegan) but there is no tension between them and the differing viewpoints are often forgotten.

Whether we’re witnessing a Blair Witch-style set-up of ‘say it’s real to make it more scary’ or whether everything presented here actually happened, I’m not sure — a blurring of fact and fiction that is a sort of success in a way, I suppose. But the opportunity to tell a decent ghost story with the jumpy moments that audiences expect has been missed.

Reviewed by Tony Peters


Buy tickets to West End theatre shows (some great discounted offers)
Subscribe to my mailing list for all the latest theatre news, special offers and competitions