FEATURE: Help the Phoenix rise again

Brian Butler September 12, 2020

Beside the currently dark Phoenix Theatre off  London’s Charing Cross Road is a venue that for 30 years has been a second  home for entertainers –  both as audience and performers, on the doorstep of both Theatreland and Soho’s gay village. .

A glass door leads to a winding Hello  Dolly staircase and a subterranean wonderland providing theatre, cabaret, concerts and open mic nights for west End wannabes. It’s created out of the former rehearsal space and dressing rooms for the theatre above it. Its normally busy programme includes acting as a small studio theatre during the annual Camden Fringe, and hosting a variety of singers, comedians, drag artists and poetry sessions, as well as boasting first-rate dining facilities .

One day  television executive Colin Savage and  travel businessman Ken Wright walked past its unassuming entrance and having heard something about the venue were curious enough to venture in. The creator of the Phoenix, Maurice Huggett viewed then with suspicion, Colin tells me. “ He thought we were football hooligans. But when he discovered I was a senior BBC executive he quickly came round.” The three became great friends , and when Maurice died tragically of Aids-related brain disease in 2011, the two men  took over as Maurice had planned.

Colin candidly admits: “ The business was struggling when we took over – and subsequently there’ve been small profits but  also  losses.” Considerable re-development work had gone on at the club when suddenly the virus hit. Colin says: “ the first blow was Boris Johnson telling people not to go out to bars but not ordering their closure . We were saying: please officially close us for insurance purposes. “

Of course as many venues found out, the insurers didn’t cough up , even though the venue had business interruption insurance. That issue is now rumbling through the courts. “ we got furlough money and it’s been brilliant but it’s ending now, and  although we’ve recently re-opened we  aren’t playing at anything like capacity or being profitable,” Colin said.

More temporary good news came in August when via the Music Venues Trust the Phoenix got some of the interim emergency funding the Government has provided to at risk venues. “ It saved us from the cliff edge which we were very near.” Says Colin.

”Our problem has always been our diversity- we’re an LGBTQ+ venue, but also a theatre space and a live music venue- we fall between the cracks for funding “.

The club got a bounce-back loan from Nat West but that of course has to be repaid. And the club was all set to re-open when the Government did a U-turn in August and stopped venues reopening. “ The rug was pulled from under us,” says Colin.

But now the club is open, with its capacity reduced from 150 to 70, with distancing, waiter service and state of the art ventilation. But the future is not yet secure. So the club has launched a Crowdfunding project to secure its future survival and expansion for the next 10 years.

Its plans also include becoming a community interest company and also expanding its existing training and education programme – it’s one of the very few venues that offers technical training for cabaret technicians. “ We want to give something back and so we’re offering a range of merchandise and treats for people who donate “ says Colin.

These include your own show, the chance to take part in  a recording session, branded clothing memorabilia and a wonderful copy of  Spitting Image cartoonist Mark Reeves brilliant caricature  showing the 20 most famous Phoenix guests queueing up outside – the likes of Keira Knightley, Lady  Gaga and Danny De Vito

The aim  is to raise £ 100,000.  See Phoenixartsclub. for more information.

Like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern , the Phoenix is one of those treasures that must’nt be allowed to disappear. You can help save it.