24 years Upstairs at the Gatehouse  

Following up on our feature about small pub venues from the last issue, Susan Elkin went to discover how Upstairs at the Gatehouse continues to thrive.

John and Katy Plews had always wanted to run a theatre of their own. So, once they felt they had sufficient experience they started to look at possibilities all over north London. When the opportunity came up at The Gatehouse, close to their home in Highgate Village they knew they’d found what they were looking for. Their production company, Ovation, acquired the lease for the upstairs space in 1987.

Although there has been a licensed building on the site since 1670 and probably for three hundred years before that, the current Victorian building has had various owners including Wetherspoons who sold it to Urban Pubs and Bars Ltd., who now run it as a gastropub. “It took four years for us to get through the paperwork, planning permission and many other hurdles to get in here” says John, telling me that what is now the auditorium (70 to 140 seats depending on configuration) was full of “junk” which had to be disposed of. When I press him, he mentions Wetherspoons’ old cookers and rolls his eyes.

He also chuckles and says: “But to have Wetherspoons downstairs really suited our actors in the early days. They loved the cheap food, but the pub didn’t then attract the audiences we needed.” He and Katy are Jewish and very aware of how much Jewish people love theatre, so geographically they’re in a useful place. “We draw audiences from all over North London” says John. “People – of all backgrounds – like not having to travel into the West End and now they can also get a good meal here either before or after the show.” 

While waiting for John and Katy (I was a bit early for our appointment), I’d sat upstairs listening to a group of actors joking amongst themselves about their show Copperfield: the musical which was opening that night. “We’re hosting that show” says Katy. “It’s not one of our own productions. Coming in next is The Girl on The Train produced by Gardner Hodges Entertainment.” 

Ovation Productions, the company which John and Katy set up in the 1980s to do corporate and other events, produces some of the shows at the theatre. “We always stage our own Christmas show, for example, and in recent years we’ve had a lot of success with shows such as 42nd Street which we did with a cast of twelve, Forever Plaid and Five Guys Named Moe – for example.” 

Programming is suitably varied. “Unlike most fringe theatres, some of which do it very well, we don’t focus on new writing” explains John. “Of course, we do some. I’ve co-written several shows, inspired by true stories myself, but generally our shows our revivals which many of our audience will have heard of.”

What John really wants is to attract teachers with small sixth form groups. “We’re not really suitable for large parties of younger children because the lavatories are accessed across the bar downstairs, but we are ideal for, say, half a dozen 16-18 year olds and many of our shows have a lot to offer Theatre Studies or Drama students.” 

The decision to run Upstairs at the Gatehouse seems to have been a natural development. On leaving school John did the technical course at LAMDA, worked around the country and in the West End including three years at Theatre Royal Windsor which he mentions several times as having been a turning point. In the 1970s he was a cruise director for P&O, Cunard and Princess Cruises. He also ran theatres, cinemas and civic venues in local government for a while. Then came Ovation Productions and the rest followed. 

Do the Plews actually make a living out of Upstairs at the Gatehouse? “No” they chuckle ruefully, telling me that the corporate side of Ovation Productions is still going strong – and, by implication, paying the bills. Then I ask the vexed Equity rates question. Do they manage to pay their actors recommended union minimum rates? 

“No, but it’s a difficult issue and there is no clear answer. We just try very hard to be fair and make sure everybody gets something” says John, explaining that the economics of a pub theatre make it impossible to do more. “I’m in constant dialogue with Equity and I’m a Society of Independent Theatres board member. The trouble is that Equity is a Trade Union so, quite rightly, it has to protect the interests of its members but there needs to be a different – realistic – rate for people working in small, fringe theatres and at present there isn’t.” 

Nonetheless there are proven advantages in appearing in an Upstairs at the Gatehouse show. “People come here to be seen” says Katy. “Casting directors and directors come to our shows to talent spot. It’s like a showcase, especially for young actors straight out of drama school. It gives us enormous pleasure when we go to a West End show and see someone in the cast who started with us.” John adds: “And after all, young people enter other industries unpaid or paid only minimally – bank interns head hunted in universities for example – as a way in.” 

We’ve been chatting over tea and coffee in the pub downstairs where John and Katy clearly have a good working rapport with the staff. Above us is the shabby-chic, spacious (by pub theatre standards) auditorium, usually configured with a transverse playing area, a waiting room for customers and staff, a mini foyer and a box office – all accessed by quite a grand staircase. Go and sample the fun for yourself. And take some sixth formers. www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com