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Town and Gown Pub & Theatre opens in Cambridge

The Town and Gown on Market Passage . Picture: Keith Heppell. (42116982)
The Town and Gown on Market Passage . Picture: Keith Heppell. (42116982)

A pub, a restaurant and a theatre all rolled into one, the Town and Gown definitely has scope to have broad appeal to a wide demographic.

The new venue opened on Tuesday (September 15) in the old arts cinema – most recently Baroosh – on Market Passage.

The Town and Gown Pub & Theatre brings to Cambridge a concept that was a big success in Birmingham at the Old Joint Stock, a big Victorian grade II-listed building in the centre of the Midlands city.

“It used to be unused space above the pub so we converted that into a fringe theatre, with a small bar on top of it, and it just took off,” says Karl Steele, the theatre and events manager at the Town and Gown.

“It’s grown and grown, and fringe theatre has got more and more popular. It’s always fringe, always different, always challenging, very immersive and we’ve found that by adding that into a venue the pub becomes unique. It becomes an event-led place to go.”

The theatre was launched in Birmingham in 2006 and, having been a big hit, the team behind it jumped at the chance to bring the idea to Cambridge, in a building owned by Hertford-based brewer McMullen & Sons.

“There was a double attraction to the venue, both the size of it and the fact it was the old arts cinema,” says Karl. “There are so many venues that have been converted from old cinemas or theatres into Wetherspoons or other venues that don’t feature the arts anymore. All you get in there is the shape of the old theatre, which is beautiful, but they don’t actually honour where they are. There is no live performance going on, there is no theatre, it’s just a pub.

“We’re taking that history of the arts cinema, putting a modern twist on it with fringe but more importantly we’re launching a cracking pub that just has this unique thing above it.”

Karl Steele in the theatre of The Town and Gown on Market Passage . Picture: Keith Heppell. (42156873)
Karl Steele in the theatre of The Town and Gown on Market Passage . Picture: Keith Heppell. (42156873)

Karl’s background was in business development, working for Theo Paphitis, of TV’s Dragon’s Den fame, where he learned retail and marketing skills.

But he had always produced theatre on the side, and that skill has married up to put commercial and artistic together to work nicely for the venues.

The programme for the fringe theatre, which is set to start on October 10, has been published for the autumn, which sees things start with Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer, and other shows include Bingo at Tiffany’s with Audrey Heartburn, the Greatest Gin Masterclass with Cambridge Gin Lab, Big Deal Comedy Night, Dracula! One Bloody Fang After Another, and many more.

“It is the weird, wonderful, outrageous, diverse,” says Karl.

“Fringe theatre encapsulates everything. If you flick through the Edinburgh Fringe programme in August, we hand-pick our programming from there.

“We go up every August for the full month, see around 90 shows in that month and hand pick what we think is cracking theatre and will programme it here.

“It’s certainly not a formal theatre, that’s for sure. But then we will programme new writing, really hard conversational pieces and things that challenge political climates at times.

“The essence of fringe is challenging the norm, the wonderfully outrageous and diverse, and anything other than the normal.”

The Town and Gown on Market Passage . Picture: Keith Heppell. (42116985)
The Town and Gown on Market Passage . Picture: Keith Heppell. (42116985)

As for the venue, it will certainly look different to visitors used to Baroosh. The big pillars in the middle of the main bar have gone, a wrought iron balcony for private dining has been put in, the mezzanine will be for fine dining, and then on the next floor is a ticket office and a theatre bar, leading up to the ‘black-box’ theatre on the top floor.

“The theatre is the secondary part of the venue definitely, but is the most unique part about it,” says Karl.

“We want people to come just to use it as a pub and restaurant and to come for nice dining, but also people that come to visit for a fringe show will use the pub and restaurant as well.

“It is one experience because of how it flows really. When people come here for a pint, we want them to be questioning what is going on upstairs and wanting to poke their head in to have a look. Maybe we will switch the cameras on for them to have a look.

“It’s definitely one venue.”

The Town and Gown on Market Passage . Picture: Keith Heppell. (42117037)
The Town and Gown on Market Passage . Picture: Keith Heppell. (42117037)

Given the hit to the arts sector because of the coronavirus pandemic, it feels like an opportune moment to open to give the theatre industry a boost.

“It was one of the first industries to close down, and it’s going to be one of the last industries to reopen. It’s devastating,” says Karl.

“Theatres rely on freelancers as well, so every actor, every company I work with is a freelancer. They have been missed out of the support as well, so if you’re being supported by the government or on furlough, a lot of freelance actors balance several jobs to be able to do their passion and they have lost those jobs because the companies are on zero-hour contracts.

“They haven’t got any shows to be able to put on, and they have fallen through the cracks with the government funding, so it’s really important that venues like ours can get cracking and get those people back into work, so we can actually have a theatre industry again.

“Venues like this feed big theatres, this is where you will see work starting and then it gets bigger and bigger.”

The Town and Gown on Market Passage . Picture: Keith Heppell. (42116981)
The Town and Gown on Market Passage . Picture: Keith Heppell. (42116981)

Of course, the pandemic does bring about the question of how things will work in the new pub and theatre with regards to social distancing and government restrictions.

There was a boost in August when permission was granted for live performances to return.

But the lay-out throughout the venue has needed few modifications from the original plan - Town And Gown was initially due to open in April.

“We’ve got a great square footage in this place, with big high ceilings and the furniture and seating we’ve planned lends itself to social distancing,” says Karl.

“It’s all private, separated booths. It’s ready to be socially distanced, as is the theatre. We have had to tweak that slightly, capacity is much lower but it is totally doable.

“But if anything, you get a more unique experience being one of 30 than you do being one of 100.”

For more information about the Town And Gown pub and theatre, which opened on September 15, visit townandgown.co.uk/theatre.

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