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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
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Canary Wharf: How Festival14 will take over the whole estate with five days of events

Theatre, comedy, dance, wellness and live music make up a packed programme over six venues

Festival14 is set to return to Canary Wharf from July 26-30,2023

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Where to even start with Festival14?

Having taken the decision to focus much of its summer arts and events programme into four days last year, Canary Wharf Group (CWG) has extended the 2023 iteration by a day, packing the calendar for July 26-30.

“We’ve really built on our programme from 2022,” said Camilla McGregor of CWG’s arts and events team.

“In addition to Winter Lights in January, Festival14 is an anchor event in our season.

“It’s trying to combine all the things that we do, like outdoor theatre, classical music concerts and dance so that people can come down and experience them on a single visit or over a few days.

“The amazing thing about the format is that everything is happening on the Canary Wharf estate within walking distance.

“Someone coming down might see some Shakespeare, take part in a workshop at the Fandangoe Discoteca then see a performance in Canada Square Park.

“Most of the festival is free because it’s important to make it accessible to the local community and as wide and audience as possible.

“We are charging for some events where there is limited space but the tickets are very reasonably priced.

“In planning the programme it’s also been important for us to create an inclusive festival with artists and acts from a diverse cross section of society in London.

“Whichever genre – theatre, comedy or music, for example – everyone should be represented.”

Buskers will be performing in Jubilee Park throughout the festival

With events and performances taking place from 11am or noon each day, there will be big name acts alongside less well-known attractions spread across six main venues.

“We’re incredibly excited to have Soul II Soul to headline Friday night in Canada Square Park because they are world famous and we’ve wanted to host them for a long time,” said Camilla. 

“On the comedy side we have performers like Mark Watson, Lou Sanders and Shaparak Khorsandi at The Monty Tent in Montgomery Square.

The Comedy Club will run in it for four nights with comedy for kids on the Sunday.

“Personally I’m looking forward to Big Fish, Little Fish Family Rave – a two-hour party designed for parents and kids to celebrate life with bubbles and balloons.

“Then on the main stage there are sets from Craig Charles and Norman Jay who are both household names and have been on the London circuit for years – they’re both amazing.

“Over the years our summer concerts have appealed to the community and we have a strong returning audience so for Festival14 we wanted to create a line-up suitable for our loyal fans and new audiences alike.

Westferry Circus will host a number of plays

“That’s why we have chosen jazz, soul and r’n’b.

“For example, we will have Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra  who are very well established and more contemporary sounds from Laura Misch, both on the Sunday.

“Canary Wharf has a long tradition of engaging with the local community too so we will have theatre programmed by The Space on the Isle Of Dogs and a performance from the Docklands Sinfonia in the mix too as well as artists who grew up in east London.

“There will be loads for kids and families to do too with the Crossrail Place Roof Garden the venue for many of these kinds of events.”

So, diaries out – the festival is only two weeks away but there’s still plenty of time to plan those must-sees.

Don’t forget the street food from Karnival in Montgomery Square, daily from noon, either. 

Click here for the full Festival14 programme

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Canary Wharf: How Festival14’s packed programme is a whole new approach

Event running July 21-24 promises more than 50 performances to help people discover the Wharf

Festival14 will run from July 21-24, 2022 across Canary Wharf
Festival14 will run from July 21-24, 2022 across Canary Wharf

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Grandmaster Flash. Live, in Canada Square Park. For free.

Those words alone are testament to the fact that Festival14 is something new for Canary Wharf.

The DJ and hip hop pioneer –responsible for the first expression of scratching ever released on a record – is set to mix among the towers as the headline act on the main stage on July 21, 2022. And that’s just the first night.

Running Thursday-Sunday, Festival14 is set to fill the estate with more than 50 performances encompassing comedy, theatre, dance, family activities and, of course, music.

our MUSIC picks for FESTIVAL14
- July 21 - Grandmaster Flash
8.15pm, free, Canada Square Park
- July 22 - House Gospel Choir
8.30pm, free, Canada Square Park
- July 23 - Ronnie Scotts Jazz Orchestra
time TBC, free, Canada Square Park
- July 24 - Sona
time TBC, free, Canada Square Park

The mostly free events will run daily between noon and 10pm at a diverse selection of venues designed specifically to encourage visitors to explore Canary Wharf.

“We’d seen the success of events like our Winter Lights festival, which takes place across lots of different parts of the estate and the amazing buzz people feel when they arrive for that,” said senior arts and events manager at Canary Wharf Group, Pippa Dale.

“So we wanted to create a similar feeling for Festival14 so that it’s very obvious when people get here that there’s something really exciting and new happening.

“People in Canary Wharf are often quite set on the places they know – the places they go to lunch, for example – so we’re hoping this will help them explore and discover different areas.”

Most of the performances at Festival14 will be free
Most of the performances at Festival14 will be free

In addition to the dozens of performances and activities, there will also be a street food market every day in Montgomery Square and special offers from some bars, restaurants and cafes for the duration.

Canary Wharf Group director of arts and events Lucie Moore said: “Moving forward, we’re looking at putting on larger scale events over shorter periods of time to bring as many people as possible to the estate but also to change perceptions about the area.

“Events and cultural activities have always been really important to Canary Wharf in terms of placemaking and, since Covid, they’re something people are looking at and talking about even more.

our COMEDY picks for FESTIVAL14
- July 21 - Milton Jones, Jessica Fostekew
7.15pm, £11, Westferry Circus Roundabout
- July 22 - Reginald D Hunter, Jo Caulfield
6pm, £11, Westferry Circus Roundabout
-l July 23 - Paul Sinha, Felicity Ward
6pm, £11, Westferry Circus Roundabout
Follow this link for bookings

“These events are a real team effort and we couldn’t be able to do them without the work of so many people across Canary Wharf Group’s teams. 

“The estate is now busy and buzzy and with the arrival of the Elizabeth Line, there’s the potential for even more people to visit.

“That’s an opportunity for us, in terms of events, because there are people who will come in from other areas who may not have done in the past.

“For Festival14 it will be really interesting to see what numbers we get in comparison to things like Winter Lights in past years.”

Events will take place from noon over the four days
Events will take place from noon over the four days

The full programme for Festival14 – a name inspired by Canary Wharf’s postcode, E14 – is still being finalised, with all updates expected online by July.  

Pippa said: “In contrast to previous years with our Tuesday night music concerts, we’ve booked some bigger acts.

“It’s a packed programme and, especially at the weekends, people will be able to listen from noon right through until 9pm or 10pm at night.

“Grandmaster Flash is our opening headliner and we think he will appeal to the audience that’s already here – a bit of nostalgia after a day in the office and a bit of a party.

our THEATRE picks for FESTIVAL14
- July 21 - 440 Theatre, Hamlet
1pm, free, Westferry Circus Roundabout
-l July 22 - The Canary Cabaret

7.30pm, free (ticketed), Crossrail Place Roof Garden
- July 23 - Mischief And Mayhem

5pm, free (ticketed), Crossrail Place Roof Garden
- July 24 - The Handlebards Romeo & Juliet
1pm, free, Westferry Circus Roundabout
Follow this link for bookings

“I’m really excited about having House Gospel Choir – they’re a group I’ve admired for a long time and we’ve been waiting for the right event to book them.

“They’re pretty local too, as is Hackney Colliery Band. We’re also really pleased to be able to host Sona on the Sunday, during her UK tour.

“The outdoor comedy at Westferry Circus also features some big names, so that’s ticketed because we have limited space and we’re expecting it to be very popular.

“We’ll be having open air theatre at that venue too with the return of The Handlebards who are fantastic and 440 Theatre who do Shakespeare plays in 40 minutes.”

The Handlebards are set to return to Westferry Circus
The Handlebards are set to return to Westferry Circus

There will also be a series of theatre performances at Crossrail Place Roof Garden – ticketed but free due to the capacity of the venue.

“Whenever we do anything we try to include the local community and local businesses and organisations around the estate,” said Lucie.

“We’re very fortunate to work where we are but we’re aware there are areas around us that need supporting.

“The Space has been operating up in the Roof Garden for years now and they were an obvious choice for us as a partner for part of Festival14 because they know that venue, we know what they do and they’ve put together a whole programme for us there.”

A range of kids activities will take place on the Saturday and Sunday, including dance music party Big Fish Little Fish Family Rave at Westferry Circus and puppetry in the form of Bus King Theatre: Marvelo’s Circus at Montgomery Square.  

“We’re really hoping, especially for families, that they will come and spend the whole day with us – do a workshop, have lunch and listen to some music,” said Lucie.

“We’ve really tried to cover a lot of areas and there will be one or two unexpected events too, such as a van that serves up takeaway poetry. We’re not finished yet.”

Here’s a little Grandmaster Flash to get you in the mood…

Read more: The O2 celebrates 15 years of gigs, events and performances

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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
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Blackheath: Why comedian Ed Byrne’s taking a hard look at himself in If I’m Honest

Comic talks Ed Venturing, small victories and parenting ahead of his show at Blackheath Halls

Comedian Ed Byrne is set to play Blackheath Halls
Comedian Ed Byrne is set to play Blackheath Halls – image by Idil Sukan

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Having been warned by his PR that I’ll have a maximum of 20 minutes to chat to comedian Ed Byrne, disaster strikes within minutes of him picking up.

After exchanging pleasantries, the line suddenly goes dead. Was it something I said? Is Byrne offend-Ed? I re-dial. Answerphone. 

For those who care about these things, Ed’s message is functional, polite and short. There’s not much material for an article here, no blistering one-liner to recount. I hang up and call again.

The second hand ticks round. He picks up. That sonorous Irish lilt is back in my ears.

“I’m sorry about that,” he says. “I think I may have somehow hung up on you with my face.”

Ed’s cheekbones aren’t the only sharp thing about him. Since his first gig, 28 years ago this November, the Irish comic has built a career skilfully dissecting his life and presenting its absurdities for the amusement of others.

Having been nominated for the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival in 1998, he’s gone on to appear regularly on TV including on panel shows such as Mock The Week and game shows as a celebrity contestant while continuing to perform live across the country.

He’s set to perform his latest show – If I’m Honestat Blackheath Halls on October 20. Although this comes as something of a surprise to him.

“Am I?” he says. “I must be. I think that’s a new venue for me, if I’m not mistaken. What threw me was that I was just in that part of London for the Greenwich Comedy Festival, which was a great laugh. I got the sunshine, I was lucky. It rained the next day.”

That Ed isn’t completely across his touring schedule feeds into the topic of the show he’ll be performing, which considers what traits, if any, he’d be happy to pass on to his kids.

“I haven’t tried to pass anything on,” he says. “But I’ve tried to drill out of them stuff that I know is innately coming from me.

“I’m very bad at being able to find things – my keys, my credit cards – and my older son is exactly the same, but there’s nothing I can say about it, because it’s my fault.

“I’m asking him if he knows where his water bottle is, and, if he had the wit, he’d ask if I knew where my sunglasses are.

“I have two kids, and nothing is more annoying than your children, because they are irritating in ways that you recognise in yourself.

“So I thought: ‘What about me am I happy to be passing on to these children, and what about me am I worried about passing on to these children?

“Ostensibly it’s about kids, but really it’s about me – I’m taking a long hard look at myself. I thought there was mileage in that, and indeed there is.

“I talk about stuff that the kids get from me, that I know I get from my parents – the desire to have the last word in an argument.

“I talk about the good things – I’m quite funny – and it also covers the skills that can’t be taught.

“For example, I’m pleased that since my mid-40s, I’ve become skilled in recognising when a cramp is going to happen and stopping it before it does. You feel it, leap out of bed and say: ‘Not today’, pat yourself on the back and go: ‘Ed Byrne, 1, insufficiently oxygenated muscle, nil’.

“It’s about finding those little victories in life. I tell a story about cutting myself with a knife recently, but being delighted because it’s a blade that I’d sharpened.

“You look for things to be proud of. Doing stand-up is a bit of a relief valve – you might be having a conversation and then later find a way to put the humour from it into a monologue.

“You can say things to an audience that you wouldn’t in real life – for instance, my kids might be really excited to get on a plane and all I want to say is: ‘This is shit, it’s Ryanair’, so I say that on stage instead, embellishing things slightly. 

“There’s going to come a point when they watch my stand-up and it will be like handing them the Allen key that dismantles my armour, because my comedy is full of my insecurities and particularly about my failings as a parent.

“I fear that day – when they do finally watch it, will they have respect for the fact that I stand up in front of people and do all these things and make them laugh, or will they say I sound like a loser?

“Talking about how soft my erections are and how bad I am at general life-skills.”

Ed's latest show is called If I'm Honest
Ed’s latest show is called If I’m Honest – image by Idil Sukan

Ed wrote If I’m Honest and began touring the show shortly before the pandemic hit. Having tweaked the material and performed his fair share of drive-ins and Zoom shows he says it’s delightful to be back in front of live audiences again.

“It’s been such a relief to be doing it,” he says. “We were having to make do. I likened it to really wanting a Mars bar when all you have is cooking chocolate. 

“That’s all there is so you make the most of it. Lockdown was miserable and then what we’ve had over the past 18 months has been miserable. 

“I think if I’d known at the start it was going to be so long it would have been more frightening.

“I did some other things, some TV and I’m very lucky because I’d been doing that stuff for years so I’d built up some equity – a lot of comedians I know had to go and get day jobs. It’s made me appreciate it all the more. 

“When I started out, there was a sense among the grown-ups that you needed something to fall back on. I was making a living out of stand-up in my early 20s, but I’d go home to my parents, and hear from them, friends and neighbours that I should have that.

“It’s a trade, a craft, it’s my job. Now it’s the stand-up I fall back on – I do other things such as acting and a bit of presenting.

“Then, 18 months ago, it was actually, finally taken away, and you go: ‘Shit. This career, that I’ve had for a quarter of a century, isn’t there anymore. It’s finally as unstable as people thought it might have been when I started.”

As a side project, Ed conceived Ed Venturing, a YouTube show launched in February where he interviews other comedians, having invited them to join him in his passion for hillwalking. 

“It’s very much in its infancy at the moment – there’s only four episodes up at the moment,” he says. “But there are two or three more in the can, and I’m hopefully going to record some more over the next month or two. So far we’ve released Rhod Gilbert, Stuart Maconie, Desiree Burch and Hal Cruttenden.

“I try to put off looking back as long as possible, until we’re at least 45 minutes into the walk. Then we sit down and talk about their career and how far they’ve come. It just suits the mood.”

Time for reflection is something of a theme with Ed, whether he’s working on new material or considering the view from a freshly conquered peak while consuming peanut M&Ms or a morsel of his homemade beef jerky.

So what does he think about the show he’s touring?

“I really want people to come and see it because this is genuinely in the top three stand-up shows I’ve ever written – it’s worth it,” he says.

“If you’ve not seen a lot of stand-up, then you should come to this show that I think is pretty good. I did one back in 1998, when I was nominated for the Perrier, which was called A Night At The Opera, and that was my break-through.

“Then I did one about 13 years ago – Different Class – which everyone agrees is the best show I’ve ever done. I feel this one is up there with those other two.

“It’s just typical that this was the one that got shut down. The routines feel good, it’s like singing a song, you know where the laughs are – I’m really enjoying it.”

Tickets for Ed Byrne: If I’m Honest at Blackheath Halls cost £25. The performance starts at 8pm. 

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