King’s Head pub theatre set for expansion after an audience with Town Hall planners

King’s Head Theatre Pub on Upper Street. Photograph: Islington Council

The curtain can go up at a new 250-seat home in Islington for one of London’s oldest pub theatres – where some of the UK’s best-loved actors began their careers.

The King’s Head Theatre on Upper Street has fostered talent for more than 50 years, with Sir Tom Stoppard, Steven Berkoff and Alan Rickman starting out there.

Other stars who have trodden its boards include Maureen Lipman, Hugh Grant, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and Richard E Grant.

The stage is set for the theatre to move into a unit at the Islington Square shopping centre development next door, meaning it can increase the audience size from 110 people to 250.  It also means the dining area at the pub, built in 1864, can be extended.

Councillors hailed the theatre as a “jewel in the crown” of the borough.

The theatre was founded by Dan Crawford in 1970 in an old boxing ring and pool hall at the back of the King’s Head pub, where it shows new work, critical theatrical revivals and accessible opera.

There are two other pub theatres in the area – the Hope above the Hope and Anchor and the Hen and Chickens near Highbury Corner.

Islington’s planning committee yesterday approved the planning application and listed building consent after quizzing theatre bosses about dressing room space and their environmental policy.

One person wrote to the council with concerns about noise and possible disruption from the larger audience and 13 others wrote in support. The management plan means the audience will leave by an exit on Upper Street.

A proposal to open a theatre in the shopping centre was initially put before the council in 2018, and won applause then.

Following dialogue with neighbours and the borough’s planning team, a new plan was drawn up that has reduced the number of seats in the auditorium from 270.

Consultee the Theatres Trust said it was essential the proposed theatre is viable and wanted to make sure there would be signs so passersby would be aware of the new home.

Chris Dunn, from Cain International, which is behind Islington Square, said it was happy to put signs up if listed building consent was granted.

“The will is there,” he said.

James Seabright, the chair of the King’s Head Theatre Trust, said the new space includes more room in the foyer for people following the pandemic.

Planning committee member Cllr Benali Hamdache (Green, Highbury) asked how the King’s Head will dissuade people from driving to the theatre “to minimise the impact on neighbours”.

Seabright said: “The King’s Head as a charity is committed to reducing our environmental impact and the way our audiences interact with us is a big part of that.”

He said visitors are encouraged to travel sustainably to the theatre and information is given out with tickets.

The plan also means pub owner Youngs can extend the dining area with a flat roof terrace with space for 60 people.

Cllr Tricia Clarke (Labour, Tufnell Park) wanted reassurance about what would happen if there were complaints.

Youngs said it wanted to be “good neighbours” and avoid problems.

Cllr Paul Convery (Labour, Caledonian) said: “It will certainly be a better performance place for actors.”

He said it will be one of the “landmark theatres” in central Islington, along with Sadler’s Wells and the nearby Almeida.

“This is  is one of the crown jewels of Islington.”

Planning committee vice-chair Cllr Dave Poyser (Labour, Hillrise) said: “The King’s Head Theatre is one of the wonderful things that make Upper Street one of the wonderful places it is in London.”