Britain, London: What to see and do in the Islington area

As I step out of Highbury & Islington Tube station on a Saturday night, Islington is going off. It's a warm summer evening and happy people swarm along the footpaths of this London neighbourhood, on their way to food and entertainment.

On St Paul's Road I pass Brewhouse and Kitchen, a microbrewery with a beer garden that's doing a roaring trade. I'm tempted to stop for a pint, but I have a date on the opposite corner in a pub called the Hen and Chickens. It seems somewhat old-school compared to its funky brewery rival, but this pub has an extra element that's very Islington: a theatre devoted to live comedy.

London is a city of many attractions to travellers, and one of its most popular is live theatre. If you're after big-budget commercial productions in a classic Victorian-era auditorium, the West End is your target. If looking for something more nuanced and subtle in the way of drama, you might head to the National Theatre in South Bank.

However, many West End blockbusters eventually wend their way to Australia and the dominant jukebox musical genre is not to everyone's taste. So where does a theatregoer go, when he's been to London many times and is tired of its mainstream theatre? To Islington, a theatre district that is all about affordable independent productions in intimate venues.

THE HEN & CHICKENS

The Hen & Chickens specialises in live comedy, of both the stand-up and theatre variety. Tonight I'm here to catch The Dysfunckshonalz!, a play in which, to quote the program, "The world's unluckiest punk band reunites for one final gig!"

Its downstairs bar is a cheerful place. The pub sits on a street corner and has large windows, so there's plenty of natural light at the end of this long summer day. As I sip my pint at a corner table, patrons drift in and order drinks prior to the show. It strikes me that a pub and a comedy venue make a perfect match, each  promoting informality and good humour.

The play turns out to be an entertaining comedy-drama about a forgotten four-piece punk band whose members are dragged back together when a credit card corporation wants to use one of its songs in a commercial. For its former frontman, going along with this deal means selling out. Chaos ensues as the tension between artistic integrity and making a quick buck mounts.

The upstairs theatre is the perfect venue for this story. It's a small space with just enough room for two backing musicians and for the five cast members to belt out their lyrics and dialogue. In the front row I'm sitting on the same level as the actors – in fact my feet are in danger of becoming mixed up with the action – so I'm closely involved with the characters' humorous clashes.

Out on the street again, thoroughly amused, I note the microbrewery over the road is still going strong. It's time for another pint.

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KING'S HEAD THEATRE

The next day I'm back in Islington, on my way to a matinee performance on Upper Street. The King's Head Theatre claims to be the first London theatre established inside a pub since the time of Shakespeare, having opened in 1970 in a rear room once used as a boxing ring and pool hall. Half a century later, the theatre is hoping to move into new purpose-built premises at nearby Islington Square in late 2020, subject to a fundraising campaign.

Its existing pub location has lots of character: the bar has a high ceiling, patterned wall panels and dozens of framed theatre posters and photos. As at The Hen & Chickens, it provides a convivial atmosphere for the waiting theatregoer, with my fellow patrons sipping beer, wine or coffee before the show.

Being performed is This Island's Mine, a revival of a 1988 production which depicts a group of Londoners dealing with prejudice in Thatcher-era Britain. The play's mostly gay characters struggle against a hostile society, but playwright Philip Osment casts his net further to tackle racism and family breakdowns. A central character is a Holocaust  survivor who offers refuge to all who need it. In an era of societal tension, it's a highly relevant tale.

Again the players and audience are very close to each other. Seated in the second row, I'm only a couple of metres from the edge of the stage. It's the perfect space for this character-focused work.

By luck today's performance is followed by a question and answer session featuring cast and crew from the original 1980s production, whose memories help place what we've seen in context.

It's been a great afternoon and a reminder of how powerful theatre can be when it is stripped of flashy effects and grand architecture and speaks directly to its audience about the human experience.

POST-SHOW EATS

Upper Street is well stocked with places to eat after a show, so on leaving the theatre I meet up with a London friend at Gallipoli, a Turkish restaurant just a few doors down. It has a warm, friendly interior with decorative tiles on the walls, and a spectacular collection of colourful lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The food is great, the Turkish beer is good and it's the perfect place in which to toast the diverse people, dining and theatre of Islington.

WHERE TO CATCH A LIVE SHOW IN AND AROUND ISLINGTON

King's Head Theatre Pub, drama and musicals. See kingsheadtheatre.com

The Hen & Chickens Theatre,  theatre and stand-up comedy, see unrestrictedview.co.uk

Angel Comedy Club, comedy in two local venues. See angelcomedy.co.uk

Almeida Theatre, drama. See almeida.co.uk

The Hope Theatre, drama. See thehopetheatre.com

Pleasance Theatre, drama and comedy. See pleasance.co.uk

Old Red Lion Theatre, drama. See oldredliontheatre.co.uk

Sadler's Wells Theatre, dance. See sadlerswells.com

Little Angel Theatre, puppetry. See littleangeltheatre.com

.. AND WHERE TO EAT

Gallipoli, Turkish cuisine. see gallipolicafe.co.uk

Ottolenghi Islington, focus on vegetarian dishes. See ottolenghi.co.uk

Duke of Cambridge, organic pub food. See dukeorganic.co.uk

Moro, Spanish and North African cuisine. See moro.co.uk

The Eagle, Mediterranean-inspired pub food. See theeaglefarringdon.co.uk

TRIP NOTES

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Visit Britain.

MORE

traveller.com.au/britain

visitbritain.com

FLY

Qantas flies to London via Singapore. See qantas.com

STAY

Radisson Blu Edwardian Grafton offers comfortable accommodation, from £167 a night. A posher option is the art deco-themed luxury of The Beaumont, from £429 a night. See radissonblu-edwardian.com; thebeaumont.com

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