Third time lucky at the theatre

DURING JULY AND early August (2022), we visited theatres three times. First was a performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre by the Thames near Southwark Bridge. The seats were far from comfortable, and the production was not among the best I have seen. Next, we watched a play (in comfortable seats) at the Young Vic in Waterloo. Neither the play, “Chasing Hares”, nor the acting was up to the usual high standard that we have enjoyed in the past at that theatre. After these two disappointments, it was with some trepidation that we made our way to the Bridge Theatre, which is next to Tower Bridge and faces the Tower of London across the Thames.

At the Bridge Theatre

The Bridge Theatre, housed in a 21st century building, was opened in October 2017. It was developed by Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner, who is both a theatre and film director. His productions at the National Theatre, where he was artistic director for several years, were wonderful. With comfortable seats and good sightlines from every seat (even those designated as ‘restricted view’), the Bridge is an excellently designed theatre. Not only are its stage and auditorium optimal, but also is the spacious foyer, from which there are good views across the Thames towards the Tower and the new skyscrapers in the City of London.

The play we saw at the Bridge on the 4th of August was “The Southbury Child” by Alex Jennings. Filled with humour, this work raises several serious questions. One of them is whether the Church of England should be authoritarian or whether it should be a democratic organisation responsive to the needs and wishes of its congregation. To avoid giving away its excellent plot, all I will say is that the play is highly enjoyable.

We have now seen 5 plays at the Bridge and not one of them was disappointing. In fact, they were all above average in quality. So maybe it was not a case of ‘third time lucky’ when after two poor performances elsewhere recently, we went to the Bridge.

Fish on the roof

WEATHERVANES ATTRACT BOTH wind and my attention. The variety of forms that these wind direction indicators assume is why I enjoy looking at them. A few days ago, whilst crossing London Bridge I spotted a building with two weathervanes on its roof. They are shaped like fish. But they are not alone because the roof is decorated with more metal fish. Their presence is appropriate because between 1875 and 1982, this arcaded edifice next to the river was home to the Billingsgate fish market. Today, the place is used as a venue for gatherings of various sorts.

Writing in 1598, John Stow (c1524-1605) noted that the ward of Billingsgate was named after ‘Belinsgate’. It was then, he wrote:

“… a large water-gate, port, or harborough, for ships and boats, commonly arriving there with fish, both fresh and salt, shell-fishes, salt, oranges, onions, and other fruits and roots, wheat, rye, and grain of divers sorts, for service of the city and parts of this realm adjoining.”

He also mentions that in the reign of Edward III (reigned 1327-1377), Belinsgate was then a much-used place for mooring ships and that these all attracted harbour fees, which depended on their size.

John Timbs (1801-1875), writing in his “Curiosities of London”, published in 1867 provided more of the history of Billingsgate. He wrote that it had been a landing place, if not also a marketplace, since the reign of King Ethelred II (reigned 978-1013). In 1699, an Act of King William III declared that Billingsgate was a market for all kinds of fish, and that it should be close to London Bridge. Timbs recorded:

“The Market, for many years, consisted of a collection of wooden pent-houses, rude sheds, and benches: it commenced at three o’clock AM in summer and five in the winter: in the latter season it was a strange scene, its large flaring oil lamps showing a crowd struggling amidst a Babel din of vulgar tongues, such as rendered “Billingsgate” a byword for low abuse … In Baileys “Dictionary” we have; a Billingsgate, a scolding, impudent slut’”

In 1849, the market was enlarged, making it more spacious and less of a scrum that it had been previously.   In 1850, the first Billingsgate market building was ready for use but by 1873, when it was demolished, it was already too small for its purpose. The former market building, which we see today with its rooftop fish ornaments, was designed by the City Architect Horace Jones (1819-1887) and opened for use in 1876. Jones’s most famous building, Tower Bridge, was completed after his death.

After it ceased being used as a fish market, instead of being demolished, the old Billingsgate market was:

“Given an industrial twist by architect Lord Richard Rogers, the building has undergone an amazing transformation, from the 19th century’s largest fish market to London’s premier event space.”

(www.oldbillingsgate.co.uk/)

Thanks to that repurposing, we can still enjoy sight of fish on a roof in the heart of the City of London.