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South Bermondsey: How The Pen Theatre provides a low-risk stage for performers

The Penarth Centre venue boasts 40 seats and is ideal for developing work or testing material

The Pen Theatre boasts a 40-seat auditorium and is available for hire

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There’s probably a half-baked line about The Pen being mightier than the Royal Court, where the latter is just about phonetically similar to “sword”.

But this isn’t the place.

This article should have gone through an editing process to knock it into shape and that sort of thing would almost certainly be left on the cutting room floor. 

But that’s also the point – I mention it here, because that kind of editing and development is one of the activities The Pen Theatre facilitates. 

“My background is in performance,” said MJ Ashton, the venue’s founder and director.

“I went to Rose Bruford College a few years ago, then started my own company – The Völvas – which was a feminist performance ensemble. 

“I toured that project for four or five years on the fringe circuits and played at various festivals and London theatres, so I experienced a lot of what was available for an emerging company.

“I’ve always felt strongly about theatres being accessible to artists and thought I’d love to run my own theatre so I could draw on my experiences and offer really cheap hire rates to performers.”

With her project having naturally reached its end and the pandemic closing the industry, that thought became more than an idea one day over a coffee with her partner, Jack Carvosso. 

The artist and photographer was looking at expanding his picture framing business, taking on a larger space at the Penarth Centre in South Bermondsey’s Penarth Street. 

A large unit had recently been vacated by a church and he was sure a third of it would do for his activities.

A similar space could be used by his friends’ business – artist-led publisher and bookbinder Folium – but what to do with the spare footage? 

“That was when MJ thought about creating a theatre,” said Jack, who has become the venue’s associate director.

“In that one meeting, we drew everything out on a napkin, then proposed it to the landlord and he loved the idea.

“The unit hadn’t been well maintained by the previous tenants, so we patched everything up, put in brand new wiring and started the journey to where we are now.

 “For me, it’s picture framing during the day and then, in the evenings, I help MJ with the theatre.”

Launched in January 2022, The Pen has hosted hundreds of shows over its first two years – offering performers a vital space to stage their first productions, hone works-in-progress, give fully realised pieces an outing or just experiment with an audience.

Jack Carvosso and MJ Ashton of The Pen Theatre

The venue has a maximum of 40 seats and provides box office facilities, technical equipment, a dressing room and green room, marketing support and front-of-house and bar staff.

Artists who want to put on shows apply to the venue, then go ahead if their proposal is accepted.

“We’re very inclusive,” said MJ. “We accept a lot of people’s applications – we invite them to come in.

“Some theatres ask for hundreds of pounds per night, but we run at cost and charge £56.50 per show.

“Then we offer a 70%-30% split on ticket sales in favour of the artist.

“This makes it affordable for artists to come in with new writing.

“It’s a low-risk space that allows them to perform – a platform that’s between a rehearsal space and a bigger theatre, where they can test their work.

“This can be good for getting reviewers in – it’s an opportunity for people to build a bit of a reputation before they start applying for larger venues. 

“We also offer free tech and dress rehearsals to keep costs really low because we know a lot of people don’t have much money.”

With the Edinburgh Fringe dominating the calendar, The Pen has carved out a role as an ideal test bed for shows before artists take them north to the proving ground of Scotland.

“We had about 65 shows over two months,” said MJ.

“The stress level was very high, but putting on shows at The Pen allowed them to try out their material before going up.

“The festival has really become the epicentre of our year – in August we quieten down, but then in September and October, we run a Fresh Off The Fringe season for acts that want to perform at a London venue after it has finished.”

With rehearsal space at the London Performance Studios in the same building, there’s a sense that The Pen is very much an integral cog in a larger machine of creativity and performance.

It’s a role both MJ and Jack clearly relish.

The Pen Theatre is located at the Penarth Centre in South Bermondsey’s Penarth Street

“When I was a performer, I thought I’d like my own space to put on anything I wanted,” said MJ.

“But now I have that, I’ve realised what I really enjoy is helping other people to develop their own stuff. 

“I’d feel a bit silly putting on my own shows – it would have been a bit egotistical to build this whole thing for myself.

“Perhaps I am surprised just how much I enjoy watching other artists develop, but I am rooting for everyone. It’s opened my eyes a bit to see what people can do. 

“We really want to create a warm comfortable environment for them and the audience so everyone can enjoy it.”

Jack added: “We watch every single show and I love it. The variety we see is just incredible. 

“Some are better than others, but it’s a great atmosphere here. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the performers and the audience having a good time.”

The Pen’s stage offers a growing pipeline of productions, with works for stage rubbing up alongside comics performing stand-up and even cabaret and scratch nights.

For MJ and Jack, having established the venue with no backing as a going concern, the next step will be to explore ways to grow and develop The Pen.

“At the moment we’re in a comfortable place,” said MJ. “We’ve made a profit and people are getting to know us.

“The next stage is for us to try and find some funding so we can hire people to work as programmers and manage the space. 

“We’d like to have a bigger team and to become a theatre that supports writers, directors and the production of shows.”

Jack added: “But to do this, we need funding. We want to pay people appropriately – we don’t want them working for free.”

The Pen Theatre is located about 20 minutes’ walk from Surrey Quays DLR, or 10 minutes from South Bermondsey station.

Find out more about what’s on at The Pen Theatre here

Read more: How Canary Wharf Group has launched Wharf Connect, a network for early career professionals

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Bermondsey: How Jerome Favre set out to capture Millwall FC fans on their turf

The New Cross-based photographer has created a book based on the hundreds of images he took

The cover image of Jerome’s book – all images Jerome Favre

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

The old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” comes into focus as I chat to photographer Jerome Favre.

He spent three years trying to capture the true face of Millwall FC fans on their home turf in Bermondsey.

The aim was to take a closer look at modern day supporters and whether they deserve the reputation that has dogged them for years.

“I’m a huge football fan and a fan of football culture,” he said. “I moved to England in 2005 – New Cross in 2013 – and the stadium is really close to me. 

“I’d heard about the reputation of Millwall fans and was interested to go and see for myself and to have an honest look at them.

“The aim of the book was to evaluate their reputation in contemporary football culture.”

Thousands of camera clicks later, his self-published photobook No One Likes Us contains more than 200 images taken in and around the South London stadium between 2018-2022. 

Dave has been supporting Millwall since 1967

He photographed ageing die-hard fans, fresh-faced teens, families and everyone in between, all proud to wear the blue and white and many grateful for the chance to show there was more to them than tattooed hooligans.

But to be successful, first Jerome had to overcome the fan’s initial judgments of him.

“I went to The Den with a couple of cameras around my neck and my French accent,” he said.

“At first I hung around with the supporters and then I started going in the stadium as well.”

He usually had no more than a minute to pitch his idea to passing fans and try and take their photographs. Unsurprisingly, he was told to ‘do one’ on more than one occasion.

“Some asked me if I was the Old Bill and things like that,” said the 46-year-old.

“They were a bit suspicious, but I didn’t mind because I’d be the same if a photographer approached me on the way to a game.”

It took a lot of rejection before he got the ball rolling, with Jerome estimating only 1% of people he approached said: ‘Yes’.

Millwall fan Daniel

“Sometimes they didn’t have time, sometimes they didn’t want their photos taken and I had to be patient and ask a lot,” said the photographer, who took up the profession 10 years ago.

“I didn’t really have time for long conversations with people because they were drinking with their friends or going places.”

The first person to say yes was a dapper gent named Morris. 

“When I explained what I was doing, he said: ‘Yeah, why not?’ I wouldn’t say he was super keen though,” said Jerome.

But the photographer persisted because the project had personal connections. Jerome grew up in the north of France supporting his hometown club of RC Lens – which he said had striking similarities to Millwall.

“It was set up by a mining company and for decades, both players and fans were coal miners,” he said.

“Millwall was founded by the workers of JT Morton’s canning and preserve factory, on the Isle Of Dogs. 

“I was fascinated by the fact that Millwall was, and still is, a working-class club and a tight-knit community.

“It also has a terrible reputation, and I was curious to cast an honest look at this football community.”

Keisha, a lifelong Millwall fan

Even across the Channel, he had heard about the stigma of violence attached to the club.

That reputation can be traced back more than 100 years, when supporters of Millwall and local rivals such as West Ham were primarily made up of dockers who worked for opposing firms, often vying for the same business.

The association with hooliganism came to prominence in the 1970s largely due to The Millwall Bushwackers – one of the most notorious hooligan firms in the UK.

Sustained criticism of their behaviour in the press and media perpetuated an image of them as violent thugs.

In response, fans created the infamous chant “No-one likes us, we don’t care” – often belted out with pride at matches.

Despite his positive intentions for the project, Jerome said he found it hard to just shake off the negative image of fans that has lingered for so many years.

”I was nervous when I started going down there, especially bearing in mind their reputation,” he said. 

Richard, a lifelong supporter

“There is one photo of a guy called Daniel who is covered in tattoos and looks menacing.

“I was scared to approach him, but he let me take his photo and it was memorable.

“I was really, really happy I got that one.”

Fans eventually got used to Jerome hanging around and the project ended up becoming a lot easier than he anticipated.

“A lot of people were genuinely interested and there’s a few people that I met, I’ve got really good memories of,” he said.

“The gentleman on the cover of the book with the tattoo on the back of his skull is a nice story.

“My friends were surprised I approached him because, of course, he looked a little bit intimidating.

“But he was so polite and so nice. After the book came out, his wife got in touch with me and said how exciting it was to have him on the cover.”

Many of his subjects are almost glaring into the camera, which does little to dispel the hard image, but Jerome said he always tells his subjects not to smile

Photographer Jerome Favre

“Because then you lose them,” he said.

“It immediately turns cheesy and you don’t really see their personality.

“So I asked people to have a neutral expression and look straight into the camera for most of the shots.”

So what did the fans he met think of their reputation?

“It’s undeserved, but it’s almost taken with a sense of pride now,” he said.

“They have turned it on its head and use the slogan to enforce the community so it feels even more tight knit.

“I think there is a sense of frustration that they’re always portrayed in that way in the media because they have been demonised and it is such a tiny minority.

“That’s why there was a lot of interest in my book.”

Jerome said he achieved what he set out to do with his project, to a degree.

“I’m not saying I’ve revolutionsed football culture, but it’s something that’s never been done before,” he said.

“It’s not trying to be positive or negative. It’s just a neutral look at them.”

Jerome’s book is available through his website, price £15.

Read more: Sign up for the Santa Stair Climb at One Canada Square

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Laura Enfield is a writer for Wharf Life and other publications covering a range of topics. You can contact her via the Wharf Life team at info@wharf-life.com
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Bermondsey: How Disturbance at Ugly Duck gives a platform to artists

Event showcases marginalised and emerging LGBTQIA+ creatives in a former warehouse

Ugly Duck’s space in Bermondsey

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

“It’s something we started as a really small experiment during the pandemic, when LGBTQIA+ artists couldn’t continue their work and were in limbo,” said Deen Atger, creative director of Ugly Duck and founder of Disturbance.

That first event in October 2020 came about after he spent hours scrolling the internet and decided he wanted to find a way to continue sharing the creativity he saw online and happening at Ugly Duck.

It saw three performers and three video artists perform to an audience of 25 in person, and 250 through a live stream. 

The idea was to take artists out of their bedrooms and adapt their performances for the camera, to reach a wider audience.

This year will see the fourth edition of Disturbance take place and, with support from Arts Council England, it has evolved into a three-day event – set to run from November 10-12, 2022.

Ugly Duck creative director Deen Atger

It will include live performances at Ugly Duck’s Tanner Street space, a day of live streaming on November 11, 2022, and an online portal where people will be able to access work made during the workshops and films made during the performances.

The live streaming aspect has been developed with Rob Hall from the start and Deen said it was an artistic work in its own right.

“He doesn’t just film the show, he is also live editing and has a very strong artistic take on what the online viewer is seeing,” said Deen, who has also been working with set designers to help transform Tanner Street into something new and surprising for audiences. 

Since Ugly Duck took on the empty Victorian warehouse in 2012, the organisation has transformed the space into a thriving, creative hub where it has collaborated with more than 1,500 artists. 

This work continues, with Deen adding a development programme to this year’s Disturbance

It will include a residency and training in topics like how to talk about their work and how to make sure it’s accessible.

“A lot of the artists, especially the younger ones, have really good artistic training, but haven’t necessarily learnt how to go into a professional world,” said Deen. 

“I think it’s really important to help them with that so they can become less marginalised.”

Ugly Duck, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, had more than 120 applications for this year’s programme. 

The final 10 were chosen by a panel and will be mentored by creatives who have taken part in the programme previously – another way Deen is trying to grow their support system.

“We are very focused on elevating underrepresented voices – artists who are not always at the forefront of contemporary art,” he said.

“It is very important for me to make sure Disturbance is not just an isolated thing.

“I’m trying to develop an ecosystem, where artists come back as juries and speakers and mentors who are upskilling and still developing.

“It’s very much thanks to artists who took part in the first event, when we didn’t have much funding, that we got to where we are.

“So it’s very important for me to continue getting them involved.”

PART OF THE DISTURBANCE

Disabled, queer video artist Olivia Morrison presents Hug Me Properly following young, queer people on a night out as they discuss how their lives changed during the pandemic

Revisiting their marginalised queer experience of growing up in southern China, River Cao will create a series of self-narrative spaces to rethink the emotions of grief.

Non-binary trans-masculine person Orlando Myxx presents film The Plastic Drag, investigating how a new wave of diverse drag artists is redefining the art of drag and its subversive potential.

Talia Beale’s To Trudge In Zundon explores how film could subvert ideas about housing estates and addresses new voices of creative, queer kids who live in blocks of flats.

Read more: How Bureau is offering creative workspace in Greenwich

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Bermondsey: How craft beer brand Hiver is set to pay homage to Oktoberfest

Stanworth Street taproom will celebrate Hiverfest over three Fridays with live music and sausages

Hiver founder and managing director Hannah Rhodes
Hiver founder and managing director Hannah Rhodes – image Matt Grayson

There’s historical precedent for Hiverfest. Bermondsey-based honey beer brand Hiver is set to host its very own homage to Oktoberfest over three Fridays – September 17, 24 and October 1 – at its taproom. 

“We’re very, very excited about it,” said the brand’s founder and managing director Hannah Rhodes. “It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a couple of years now – there’s a lovely tie-in because honey beer was one of the original festival beers.

“Hops were only introduced to brewing in the 1400s in the UK so honey was a key ingredient before that. It helped the beer last a bit longer and gave greater depth of flavour.

“Also, because it’s a natural sugar, it gets fermented into alcohol, making honey beers a bit more spicy than other brews that would have been around at the time.

“That makes it ideal for a party or a festival. This summer has been all about getting back into a normal groove and we didn’t want to miss that opportunity to have some fun and party.”

Those going to Hiverfest will be able to sample plenty of beer
Those going to Hiverfest will be able to sample plenty of beer – image Matt Grayson

The events, which run from 6pm-11pm will see around 120 people join Hannah and her team under the arches in the taproom at Stanworth Street on each of the nights for food, beer and live music. 

Tickets cost £30 per person and include a pint of Hiver and a portion of food. Ceramic steins will also be available to purchase for £25, which includes another pint of Hiver and a £1 discount on pints at the venue, whenever the owner pops in for a beer on an ongoing basis.

“Hiverfest is going to be lots of beer swilling, feet stomping,” said Hannah. “We did a test run a few weeks ago in the guise of a staff party and it was very successful.

“Of course we’ll have our range of amazing, award-winning beers including our lager Fabal and our honey beer range from Hiver.

“We also have a fab street food partner called SmoKings – they’re normally based at Finsbury Square in Moorgate and they do everything from grilled meats to vegan and vegetarian alternatives.

“They will be making some festival sausages for us with both meat and vegan options and meat and vegetarian platters too. That may well be the start of a longer partnership between the two businesses as well.

“The live band are a brass trio called Hot City Horns and we’re really lucky to have them. 

“It’s actually through someone I was at school with years and years ago – Paul Burton. They’ve been really successful, working with the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, Jess Glynne, Emeli Sande and Olly Murs and they’ll be bringing a singer along with them for the three evenings.

“We’ll have everything from a bit of acoustic stuff to get people going, to standing on tables, wandering around and getting people engaged. While everyone will have a table and a seat, we don’t think it’ll be long before people are up on their feet.”

Hannah pours a Phoebee stein of beer
Hannah pours a Phoebee stein of beer – image Matt Grayson

Ticket holders can also expect some surprise goodies, a prize for the best Oktoberfest-themed fancy dress and the opportunity to purchase an extensive range of merchandise, much of it featuring brand logo Phoebee.

“We now have gorgeous new branding – a bit more playful with a few more bee puns that people seem to love,” said Hannah. “We’re bright and fresh.

“As a business beyond the taproom, we have some new products in the wings, which we hope will be coming out in the spring. 

For the moment we’re quite focused on festive Christmas gift packs, making sure we’ll be offering something a bit different.

“The last year has been very much about driving online sales – we’re now available in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, which is great.

“It’s been about learning how we can get more savvy with online and driving digital sales.”

Hiverfest, however promises to be an offline experience, taking the best bits of similar events in Germany and giving them a Bermondsey twist.

“The arch is something tangible and there’s something really nice about seeing it come to life at the weekend,” said Hannah.

“I’m a big fan of Oktoberfest in Germany and can’t wait to go back. It’s that lovely reminder of the role of beer, where people have fun and socialise.

“We’ll have our own version of the Prosit song and, hopefully, everyone will sing.”

Those attending Hiverfest can choose between a pint of Hiver on arrival or Hannah’s relatively new release – Fabal – a dry crisp lager made with pressed barley and already the house pour at The Dorchester.

“While Hiver means beekeeper, Fabal means the human artisan or craftsperson, like the maltsters who supply us for the brand,” she said.

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