Exhibitionists: great new venue, shame about the play

Jake Michell Jones and Ashley D Gayle in Exhibitionists, at the King's Head Theatre
Jake Michell Jones and Ashley D Gayle in Exhibitionists, at the King's Head Theatre - Alastair Muir

The King’s Head theatre in Islington prides itself on having been at the vanguard of London’s pub theatre movement, that rough-and-ready counter culture that sprang up in the late 60s and early 70s to provide a frisky, fringe alternative to the West End.

For some 50 years, it was in a cramped, characterful back-room behind an estimable Upper Street boozer, playing host to projects wondrous and atrocious and seeing a drip-drip of emerging and famous names. Some of these (Steven Berkoff, Janet Suzman, Mark Gatiss) paid homage at a final performance last August, when time was called on the space.

The cherished post-show ritual, inaugurated by its ebullient American founder Dan Crawford (who died in 2005), was a bucket rattled at the exit to raise money for the leaky roof (dependably ever in need of fixing). That carry-on remains now that it has relocated to a much swankier purpose-built venue nearby (completed, after a decade of behind-the-scenes endeavour, to the tune of £2 million), although donations these days can be made via contactless payments.

There’s no danger of a leaky roof any more, given that the flexible 200-seat auditorium is snugly found four floors under, but seeing as the venue needs to raise £100,000 a year, the spirit of “every penny counts” perforce prevails.

With the décor still needing tarting up, with posters and the like, the keepers of the flame must guard against corporate dullness. But to its immense advantage, the new venue, situated inside an early-20th-century Post Office building, is a mere stagger from the pub (albeit it has two bars of its own), and can offer a generous array of spick-and-span loos.

Exhibitionists, at the King's Head Theatre
Exhibitionists, at the King's Head Theatre - Alastair Muir

The venue is cleaving to an LGBTQ+ programming slant. This is a commendable enough policy, but one hopes it will yield better work than its so-so opening play, Exhibitionists (by Shaun McKenna and Andrew Van Sickle). There’s a real sense of déjà vu about this gay “comedy of manners”, not least because it seems so indebted to Coward’s Private Lives (now almost a century old).

Two former partners, Ashley D Gayle’s confident lawyer Conor and Robert Rees’ preening architect Robbie, bump into each other, with new, flagrantly less compatible companions in tow, at a modish art gallery opening in San Francisco. The direction of emotional travel, with debates about the value of monogamy en route, is not hard to discern from the start. Which makes the 100-minute affair (directed by Bronagh Lagan) a bit of a trial, even though the evening gets more into its barbed stride once it relocates to a motel.

Norwegian actor Øystein Lode, making his London debut as the multi-tasking motelier, is the saving grace of those scenes, bringing a bemused “anything goes” attitude to the up-tight bust-ups and bedroom shenanigans. Still, I’d rather watch some Ibsen, any day. The new waterproof venue merits applause, but its opening gambit is a bit of a damp squib.

Until Feb 10. Tickets: 0207 226 8561; kingsheadtheatre.com