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Rotherhithe: How Rotherhithe Playhouse is embracing new traditions this Christmas

Founder Phil Willmott is putting on The Christmas Wife and the Wizard Of Oz at theatre’s new home at The Hithe

Rotherhithe Playhouse’s Phil Willmott – image by Matt Grayson

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Declarations that it is “The most wonderful time of the year” are being blasted at us from all angles.

That perfectly trimmed TV turkey, the handmade centrepiece online, families decorating in matching Christmas jumpers.

Fomo is more rampant than ever, but with the shadow of Covid just over our shoulders and the cost of living crisis in our faces, do we really need to embrace it?

Phil Willmott from Rotherhithe Playhouse knows no-one wants to be Scrooge, but thinks it’s important to highlight that we don’t have to be Stacey Solomon either.

The theatre, which launched in summer 2020, is marking its second festive season with The Christmas Wife – a dark comedy offering couples the chance to pause and reflect.

Showing from December 15-30 at the theatre’s new home in The Hithe, it is an adaptation of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, which tells the story of a wife whose perfect Christmas starts to unravel due to one bad decision.

It will be tempered against family favourite The Wizard Of Oz, also showing December 15-30, 2022, which launches a new scheme offering up to four free childrens’ tickets with a paying adult.

I sat down with Phil to find out more about the plays and the theatre’s plans for 2023.

The Christmas Wife is set to play at Rotherhithe Playhouse

why this play for Christmas?

We’re all about getting people to go to the theatre who haven’t been much.

There’s a great tradition in this country of doing theatre for families and children at Christmas and I wondered if it might be possible to present slightly intelligent plays that could be a Christmas night out for adults. 

I looked for something that would be thrilling and entertaining and The Doll’s House is one everyone has heard of, but not many people have seen.

why rename it?

The original is set during Christmas and I have upped the ante slightly on the angle of providing the perfect Christmas and how the pressure makes the wife start to buckle.

Often men don’t take responsibility for the perfect Christmas, they just expect it to be there and don’t see the hard work. 

I had seen The Doll’s House and liked it, but when I read it again, I realised there was so much more to it.

It’s extraordinary how this was written about a Victorian couple but we could so easily be eavesdropping on any modern house.

There are the same kind of money worries, the same stresses and strains that come about when a family is thrown together so intensely in the festive period.

what’s the aim?

It shows that the struggle to get through Christmas is a sort of universal thing. It pulls on your heartstrings and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. 

Perhaps if we opened up the discussion a bit more there wouldn’t be the pressure to recreate the mystique of the perfect family Christmas with an elaborate dinner and a beautifully decorated house.

If it was more collaborative, there would be a shared responsibility for it.

what happens in the play?

The character is the perfect housewife, during the perfect Christmas. She’s got the perfect husband – he’s just been promoted – and perfect children. 

They are having a party and the house looks gorgeous, but to pay for it, she gets the equivalent of a payday loan. 

She didn’t quite make the payments back and due to a series of coincidences, the guy who organised the loan ends up at their house.

She becomes terrified her husband will find out and about the repercussions. Will he stand by her and be sympathetic? 

We see what she decides to do and what that says about their marriage.

is that a common scenario today?

I did some research and the main reason people divorce is money.

The main time the cracks begin to show is at Christmas.

So there’s a sort of double whammy of creating this amazing time, not spending too much, but also not being a Scrooge.

is it more stressful this year?

Yes. We are in the middle of an economic downturn and there is still the pressure to create the perfect Christmas.

You’re also worried about whether you’ve had the heating on too long. 

My elderly parents are certainly thinking twice about it.

The pressure has doubled down and you find yourself thinking: ‘What if it isn’t a great Christmas?‘ or ‘What’s wrong with me?

Why aren’t I happy like the rest of the world?’. In fact, the rest of the world is thinking the same.

The festive season is very strange like that. Coming in, you should be happy and making a fresh start. Also, 10 years ago who knew we all had a credit rating?

Suddenly it’s something you have to worry about. We are confined by something that’s almost entirely artificial and has been sort of forced on us.

what are you like at Christmas?

I’m a gay man in a relationship, so we don’t really have those same pressures, and we’ve often just taken ourselves off for a nice weekend or something. 

But I remember seeing it in my parents when I was growing up and looking back, I see things I didn’t understand as a kid. 

My grandma had quite severe, MS and my granddad was her main carer, but somehow on Christmas Day, he produced dinner for 12. That must have created a great amount of stress.

As kids we took it for granted.

what causes the stress?

Everyone wants their children to have the most magical Christmas.

Then there’s the pressure for the extended family to come together and siblings might not get on, but because its Christmas, you have to.

Very few people are motivated by just pleasing themselves at Christmas.

how has the Playhouse evolved?

After last Christmas, we took a break to think about how to do things better.

We used to set up a theatre in a different venue for each production, but decided it would be good to have a home, so people know where we are.

This is the second production in our new home at The Hithe. It’s a hub for startup businesses  and we’ve got one of the biggest studios upstairs.

We wouldn’t normally be able to afford it, but I approached them and made the case – because the owners are tuned into our philosophy of lifelong learning and trying to keep theatre alive, they have let us have it for just under market rent.

Rotherhithe Playhouse’s home at The Hithe

why did you want a home?

We used to move around because, as Covid lost its grip, there were lots of institutions and buildings, which needed to show the public they had opened again – a play was a good way of getting people through the doors.

That’s become less useful now and it’s more useful for the community to know there’s a place where every school holiday, there’ll be something for kids for free.

If people choose, they can come back and see some of the greatest plays ever written with tickets you can afford.

does the future feel more secure?

I think so. We’re very reliant on people’s goodwill and it’s taken a little while to build that up. We had a good momentum but then disappeared for six months so we need to build up the audience members again. 

This project is not entirely make-or-break, but if we can’t turn the corner with a production of The Wizard of Oz, then we are doing something wrong.

We’ll sit down at the end of this and look very carefully at the box office figures and hopefully, the books will tell us people are enjoying coming and we should continue. 

I suspect we will carry on. There’s enough interest in the project that we can keep building it. The ultimate goal is to get everyone paid properly and make it sustainable.

is The Christmas Wife a gamble?

Yes. Will people exhausted from work want to see it? I don’t know. The other reason I decided on The Wizard of Oz is that’s such a well-known title and hopefully, the 50 seats will fill themselves. 

It will be an added bonus if people come back for the drama, which will have 30 seats.

is it still a minimalist set?

Yes. I don’t want to do those great, long lumbering, stodgy productions with bits of scenery cranking about.

At its heart, this is about an audience sat around in a semicircle, with very good actors telling a story very clearly and carrying people along with it. 

is it hard to find actors these days?

The arts are still decimated after Covid, so many people have left the profession because there was no work and a lot of them have stayed in permanent jobs. 

There’s a shortage of actors who want to give up long-term stable employment to take a short-term contract.

We try to keep rehearsals and performances outside of office hours so it’s possible to maintain your survival job and also practice your craft.

do you still have a day job?

Yes, I’m still also a professional journalist, but this has become more my main job, although it doesn’t pay like it.

It wouldn’t operate without a high level of focus on my part. 

I’d like to delegate more, but you need a certain calibre of person that you are happy to leave things to.

We are so open to anyone getting involved. Even if you don’t have any experience and would like to volunteer,  we will teach you.

plans for 2023?

It is quite dependent on how people react to these plays. 

The only thing I’m absolutely sure of is that every holiday and half-term I want to do a piece of kids theatre where the tickets are free for kids so that they don’t just go to the theatre a couple of times during their childhood. 

I want it to be something they can do regularly so that it demystifies the process and it makes it feel natural and comfortable.

Read more: Greenwich Theatre villain takes the panto reins

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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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Canada Water: How British Land is building a new, 53-acre town centre for Rotherhithe

As the first concrete cores rise, we take a snapshot of the mammoth mixed regeneration project

An artist’s impression of British Land’s new bridge over Canada Water

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Before we begin our walk across the 53 acres that British Land (BL) is regenerating on Rotherhithe peninsula, Roger Madelin indulges in a raspberry croissant at Canada Water Cafe (only £2.70 for those who fancy a treat).

The place is packed. Local residents are meeting, chatting and working at tables. It’s the kind of image developers like to mock up on computers to show the thriving neighbourhoods their schemes will hopefully create.

It’s also cause for Roger to reflect on the fact that BL has a very rare opportunity at Canada Water – a project it describes as a chance to “build London’s first new town centre in 50 years” at the heart of a mature, expectant community. 

Carpeted with mostly suburban housing in the first flush of Docklands regeneration, the area is already home to residents, increasingly attracted by its close proximity to both the central London and Canary Wharf, thanks to the Jubilee line, but also to east and south London via the Overground.

Roger tells me it’s within 45 minutes of more places in the capital than anywhere else.

As joint head of Canada Water at BL, there’s a glint in his eye as he talks about the firm’s ambitions for the area.

Having spent 29 years at developer Argent overseeing the projects across the country such as Brindleyplace in Birmingham and the rebirth of King’s Cross in north London, there’s a sense that he couldn’t quite resist this one.

“BL noticed I was leaving Argent and asked if I wanted to come and run Canada Water,” he said.

“At first I was sceptical, I didn’t want to do a residential development, which is what I thought it would be.

“But then I came down here and realised it would be an opportunity to build a new town centre – what an extraordinary privilege.

“Then you get to ask what that is and I think it’s about health, environment and sustainability.

“Everyone in the world should regard urban places as very important and I think both Canada Water and Canary Wharf can be exemplars for how to reposition areas as urban centres.”

British Land’s joint head of Canada Water, Roger Madelin

While Canary Wharf continues its transition from pure business district to a place that’s home to companies, residential housing and a potent blend of leisure and hospitality attractions, Canada Water is still in the first chapter of its journey.

Concrete cores are rising on the first of its new buildings, which will include a new leisure centre for the area and social housing on the site’s eastern periphery. 

But these first structures are very much the vanguard in what will be a transformation of a plot that includes the whole of Surrey Quays Shopping Centre, the old Harmsworth Quay Printworks and connects Southwark Park with Greenland Dock and Russia Dock Woodland.

“With the planning permission we have, we can create a new urban centre,” said Roger.

“We have the ability to flex from 3million sq ft of commercial space to 4million – likewise we can build a minimum of 2,000 homes or a maximum of just under 4,000.

“Similarly, we can build up to 1million sq ft of retail and leisure space – we may not do that, but it will be a substantial amount. With the current shopping centre and leisure park, the area has about 350,000sq ft.

“As an overview, we’ll have about 35 new buildings, 20 acres of new public space and a 3.5-acre park.

“Many of our buildings will be five storeys high to protect the view of St Paul’s from Greenwich, so this will be on a human scale and I think that will attract people.

“The development I was involved with at King’s Cross has more people going there at weekends than to work during the week.

“There are dozens of places around London that are teeming with people on Saturday and Sunday.

“It’s great for people that live in them, but we also want people living outside to come here and enjoy themselves.”

British Land intends to preserve The Printworks building as a cultural venue

That attitude has doubtless been bolstered by the success of event and music venue Printworks, which has seen Harmsworth Quays’ immense press halls regularly fill with revellers enjoying some of the very best electronic music in London.

While originally conceived as a temporary use for the vast building in partnership with Broadwick Live, the plan is now to preserve the venue as part of the overall scheme, enclosing and enlarging the existing building and creating a park next to it.

“I credit my wife entirely for the decision to explore retaining the whole building,” said Roger.

“She and I walked round here in the summer of 2015 and she immediately saw the amazing opportunity it presented and asked what we were going to do with it.

“I said the assumption was that we would knock it down because it looked a bit harsh but she said we shouldn’t because nothing like it would get built again.

“Today, of course, you’d start with that assumption because of all the embodied carbon in the building.

“That was a little in my mind at the time, but not as much as today, when the view is where possible you don’t touch existing buildings.

“So, after three years of investigations – drilling, digging and studying – we’re pretty confident it was built a lot better than we even hoped, so we have applied for planning permission to keep it and extend it.

“If that’s successful, we’ll aim to be opening it by the end of 2025 – an amazing cultural venue to complement the others in the city.

“We already know the acoustics are extraordinary, whether it’s an electronic music event or a BBC Prom, both of which have been hosted there.”

Another artist’s impression of how The Printworks could look

This article is, naturally, far too short to do justice to the extent and depth of BL’s Canada Water project.

Even a brief walk to its borders reveals the sheer scale of the project, with plans for a new pedestrian bridge across Canada Water itself, which will also include work to boost wetland habitats and see the water level pumped up.

Already there’s been space made for charitable endeavours, work to help boost startups and a facelift for Surrey Quays Shopping Centre itself, including wallball courts and a new climbing wall.

Then there’s investment in a modular building for TEDI-London – a new higher education enterprise co-funded by King’s College London, Arizona State University and UNSW Sydney and focused on engineering – that was erected in only six weeks.

While some of these are temporary benefits, they significantly add to the buzz of the area and provide a flavour of BL’s direction of travel as the wider project continues to unfold.

“If we could do something here with applied engineering higher education, that would excite me,” said Roger.

“How we deal with the world always involves engineers sorting stuff out and I think, in the UK, the sector has had a bad rap in the past. 

“The other things I think are crucial is what we do with the new high street, which will be along Deal Porters Way – what it means to build a space like that now and how we create the public spaces and routes to the amazing parks, docks and woods that are already here.

“We want to make it so that if you have nothing on your agenda for the weekend and you want to stay in London, then you’ll just go to Canada Water and all the amazing stuff that’s there.

“King’s Cross is great – I think this will be bigger, better and greener from a public space point of view.”

An artist’s impression of the first phase from Canada Water station

Read more: Discover the 2022 Greenwich Theatre panto

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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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Rotherhithe: Why UK Wallball is launching courts at Surrey Quays Shopping Centre

Organisation’s CEO wants facility to be used as an urban playground to help boost Londoners’ activity

The courts have been installed at Surrey Quays Shopping Centre
The courts have been installed at Surrey Quays Shopping Centre

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Sunlight streams down onto the freshly minted wallball courts at Surrey Quays Shopping Centre.

I bounce the rubber ball and slap it vigorously with my hand.

My opponent steps in, makes an easy return, I dash forward striking the yellow sphere deftly into the bottom right hand corner of the wall, where it bounces back into the court and lands stone dead. The point is mine.

I lose all the other points, of course, but then my opponent is founder and CEO of UK Wallball and a former European No. 1 singles champion. So I don’t feel too bad.

Dan Grant and the governing body for the sport he runs are on a mission to get as many people as possible outside, active and bouncing balls against walls.

Installed in partnership with British Land, the two UK Wallball courts on the Rotherhithe Peninsula will be free to use (if you’ve brought your own ball) and can be turned to any number of game variations following their forthcoming launch on May 12, 2022.

Dan said: “Wallball is a simple, accessible sport where you hit a ball against a wall with your hands. Lots of people will have done it at school – called it pat-ball, Eton Fives, one-wall handball – there are lots of different names for it, but ‘wallball’ is the one they play around the world.

“This is the one wall version and it’s the international standard.

“Basically, you have one big rectangle marked out on the wall and one big rectangle on the floor. The main thing is – all you need to do is hit the ball with either hand so that it hits the wall and lands in the court.

“It can bounce once before it’s hit again and then you rally away until it either bounces twice or it goes out.

“The way it’s scored is that you get a point for each rally won on your serve – if you lose the rally then it’s your opponent’s serve. Games are usually played up to 11, 15 or 21 points.

“The easiest way to think of it is that it’s like playing squash against one wall – but there’s no line to hit it above, so you can hit it low and kill the ball.

“For the service, the ball has to hit the wall and land in the back half of the court and then it can land anywhere in the box.

“There’s also a blocking rule – if I hit the ball and then don’t move, I’m a legitimate obstruction that the other player has to try and get around.

“You can’t rugby tackle the other person out of the way – it’s a non contact sport – so they have to get round you to get the ball back.”

UK Wallball CEO Dan Grant pictured at the new courts

Having travelled the world playing the game Dan subsequently trained as a doctor, so his interest in promoting sport goes beyond pure publicity and is firmly rooted in the physical and mental benefits of outdoor activity. 

“Our aim at UK Wallball is to try to get as many people from as many different backgrounds as possible active.

“In cities where grey space is increasing and green space is disappearing, we think people should use walls for things like this.

“There are official rules, but our motto is: ‘Any wall, any ball, anytime’. We don’t care how people use the courts, so long as they are being used.

“If people want to invent their own rules, they absolutely can. This whole space at Surrey Quays can be used for a lot of other things – not just traditional wallball.”

The Rotherhithe installation is the first multi-court facility for free use in the country.

Alongside the two playing areas is a third space where those waiting to have a go can hang out, spectator searing and a vending machine selling balls and gloves.

Dan said: “Last year, we did our first proper community court at Bankside, which was also a really vibrant installation.

“That was us working with the Jack Petchey Foundation to target young people in London.

“When it went up it got a lot of media traction, which was awesome. I think a lot of people during the pandemic realised exercise in the open air was a pretty good thing, and that wallball is cheap too – in fact, if you have your own ball, it’s free.

“Off the back of that, British Land, which is regenerating the area around Surrey Quays and Canada Water, saw it, thought it was pretty cool and got us down to find out if they could do something for the community here.

“I persuaded them that they should and so we’ve installed the courts.

“We got our artist back – Dan Gurney – to make them look great. I really like his geometric approach. It works really well in an urban space.

“When you do this kind of thing, you want the courts to feel like they belong, so the design is inspired by both the greenery and the docks on the Rotherhithe peninsula.

“We’ll also have posters telling people how to play and how the design of the courts fits into the local area.

“The way we think of it is as an urban amphitheatre – yes, we want it to be used for wallball, but other sports and arts organisations can get in touch with us and use the space as well.

“It’s also that street to elite philosophy – I want a kid who’s played on these courts, hasn’t had to pay for anything apart maybe for a couple of quid for a ball and then for them to go on and play for Team GB. That would be really cool.”

A vending machine will sell balls on site or players can bring their own
A vending machine will sell balls on site or players can bring their own

Dan, who works as a doctor in emergency medicine and medtech, believes wallball could be the next big thing in the UK – something he believes would be beneficial to the health of the nation should urban environments embrace it. 

“Everything we’ve learnt over the last few years suggests it will catch on in the UK,” he said.

“It’s already big in Ireland, Spain and the Basque Country – it’s huge in the USA. In New York there are 2,500 courts. Wallball is taking off here too. 

“We’ve started working with schools over the past couple of years and the kids love it. It’s not just sport either – when we put a court in a school we can give them a blank canvas and they can design it, so there’s a creative element there too.

“Our ethos is that it’s not super-serious. 

“Of course, there are pathways for GB Juniors to go straight to the top, but if you just want to turn up and play, that’s fine too.

“I feel like if the kids are enjoying it, then that’s good for all of us.

“As a doctor I’m interested in prevention. We know that if you’re just active and walking around, then that’s really good for you.

“As you travel you see people from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds have the worst outcomes in terms of health. So, having an urban space that feels safe and fun is much better than the alternative.”

The UK Wallball courts at Surrey Quays are set to launch on May 12, 2022, from 1pm-3pm.

The courts will be in place on an ongoing basis.

Read more: APT in Deptford seeks trustees to sit on its charity board

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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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Canada Water: What Squid Markets’ Canada Water Market offers shoppers

Company behind Wapping Docklands Market expands to Deal Porter Square, south of the Thames

Canada Water Market on its very first day of trading

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Not to be confused with South Korean ultraviolent Netflix phenomenon Squid Game, Squid Markets has reached a milestone.

On the first birthday of its first successful project – Wapping Docklands Market at Brussels Wharf – it unveiled a second, this time south of the Thames. 

Even for its first iteration on Easter Sunday (April 17, 2022), it was clear Canada Water Market is the right thing in the right place. 

Despite hordes of Londoners heading off to see families, the traders, street food vendors and refreshment stalls were doing brisk business at Deal Porter Square – something that will doubtless continue as the market is set to run every Sunday outside the library from 10am until 4pm.

It offers visitors a heady blend of live music, cuisines from around the world, German beer, wine, baked goods, fresh produce, crafts and art – a place to shop, but also to meet, eat, drink and be merry as the sun sparkles on the waters of the nearby dock.

Squid Markets founder Will Cutteridge

The divide created by the Thames itself was indirectly the inspiration for Squid’s latest venture – a physical obstacle that Londoners have been working to overcome (somewhat unsuccessfully) for hundreds of years.

While previous generations have tried tunnelling to connect Wapping and Rotherhithe, for Squid founder Will Cutteridge the solution was simpler – take what already works in one location and replicate it in another.

“We know at Wapping Docklands Market that the majority of our customers come from north of the river,” he said.

“So I thought we should have a market south of the Thames but in relatively close proximity to our first operation. 

“That way we’re able to start to grow the brand both in east and south-east London. That’s when I started looking for sites – literally on Google Maps, zooming into open spaces.

“Because London is so densely packed, if there’s a large open space it’s pretty obvious and I began looking in Rotherhithe and Deal Porter Square seemed the obvious place to do it – it was the right sort of area for what we’re offering.”

Art by Ed J Bucknall on sale at the market – more here

With swathes of regeneration already completed – and a great deal more in pipeline – the peninsula has seen a steady increase in population with new businesses and ventures arriving in the area. So what is Squid bringing to that mix?

“Canada Water is, like Wapping, primarily a food market,” said Will.

“We want people to come and do their weekly shop with us, get all their fruit and veg, their bread and all the standard items, while also grabbing a coffee and catching up with their neighbours.

“One of the most exciting things that we’ve seen at Wapping is that it has brought the local community together.

“People who live in the same building, right across the corridor from each other and have never spoken, have met at the market, and I think that’s the joy of something like this.

“That’s exactly what we want to create at Canada Water – something that brings people together in an old-fashioned way. 

“I think that’s important in this day and age, because people don’t talk to each other in London very much and the market provides a friendly environment where they can.

Produce from Chegworth Valley is also available – more here

“You go to the supermarket, pick up a bunch of carrots and put them in your basket, and it’s not very immersive or interactive.

“If you buy a bunch of carrots from our Chegworth Valley stall, the team running it all live and work on the farm – they pick the fruit, plant the seeds, and you’re meeting the people who grow your food – you have a dialogue with them, come back every week and it’s always the same people.

“We also have a small craft section in all our markets, because we tend to find that there’s a lot of local people who have a side gig making things.

“For example, we have a a guy who hand-makes all his terrariums – Plant And Person – which is quite cool.

“Hosting those pitches is a great way to get local businesses to the market, and it provides a bit of variety in addition to the food itself.

“We also have a local artist – Ed Bucknall – who sells his works, and one lady who takes all of our empty bottles from the wine stall at the end of the day and uses them to make candles.

Cheese from The French Comte – more here

“Street food is, of course, a critical part of our operation – visitors to the market can do their shopping and then listen to some live music, have a beer or a glass of wine and then grab a pizza, some curry, steak or a wide variety of Asian food.

“There’s also a guy selling Portuguese sandwiches and vegan Caribbean food from Joy’s Caribbean Fusion, so there’s a lot to choose from.

“Our plan is to have a total of 35 traders here, which is enough to provide a really good mix of food, produce and services – we’re always on the look out for new traders, so anyone interested should get in touch.

“We might have re-branded, but we remain hugely passionate about sustainability – it’s incredibly challenging but it’s something we remain focused on.

“One of the ways in which Squid does this is to find small businesses through its markets and help them build their brands nationally – we’re always seeking really interesting food producers that we can go into partnership with.”

Spinach rolls for £4 from Rodgis – more here

Read more: How Canada Water Dockside will transform Rotherhithe

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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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Rotherhithe: How Phil Willmott’s Rotherhithe Playhouse delivers classics

Born in lockdown the theatre company is currently staging its fifth production and looking to the future

Phil Willmott of Rotherhithe Playhouse
Phil Willmott of Rotherhithe Playhouse – image Matt Grayson

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When life fell apart, Phil Willmott found himself broke and bored.

The Rotherhithe resident went from being one of the most commissioned theatre writers in the UK as well as a director, artistic director, composer, librettist, teacher, arts journalist and actor to, well, a man sat in a room.

As he has done since childhood, the 55-year-old turned to theatre, launching Rotherhithe Playhouse just after the first lockdown.

It started with Hamlet on the riverside and progressed to A Christmas Carol, the Rotherhithe Gospels and Great Expectations, each performed in a different open air location with sets built from recycled and found materials.

Current production The Macbeths runs until November 6 in the courtyard of The Ship in Rotherhithe with three shows planned for the Christmas period.

We sat down to find out more about the man behind the company.

How did Rotherhithe Playhouse start?

As a kid, theatre was really important to me. I didn’t go to a particularly good school so I would take myself off on Saturday afternoons to see plays and musicals at Bristol Old Vic. 

It was how I learnt about the world. When Covid closed all the theatres, I realised there was a real danger of a whole generation of kids never being taken to the theatre, who will have never seen the plays they are studying. 

I felt the longer the pandemic went on, the more people would get out of the habit of going to the theatre, so an entire art form could die away. 

There is a beautiful riverfront outside my window so I thought I would get some actors together and we would go and do Hamlet down there.

It was very simply staged and the audience was really transported by it. I just thought we had to keep it going.

What makes it different from a conventional theatre?

Each production is in a different venue in Rotherhithe to help bring them to a wider public. I don’t think I would be interested in the nuts and bolts of running a permanent venue but each month we build a new theatre from scratch – it’s very exciting and you can adapt the performance to the site you are in and make it very special.

Tickets are free if you access food banks or subsidised school meals and for everyone else we run the Pay What You Can scheme. That way I hope it will always be affordable for people to take their kids to see a magnificent piece of literature, which is really life enhancing.

The other innovative thing we do is with the creatives. Because of the pandemic, lots of them took proper full-time jobs and now they find it impossible to give them up for short-term theatre commitments. So we only work outside of office hours so they can participate.

Phil’s interest in theatre was sparked by pantomime – image Matt Grayson

What sparked your interest in theatre?

Pantomime. I was taken as an annual treat and I used to sit there intently watching it so that for months, as I fell asleep, I could run it in my mind. 

I came from quite a working class background in Bristol so there was no-one to explain theatre to me. I assumed it was just the actors. It didn’t occur to me that someone wrote and directed and designed it.

I thought I wanted to be an actor and trained for three years and was relatively successful playing, ironically, upper class twits in light entertainment and ended up in a Science Fiction soap opera Jupiter Moon that they used to launch Sky. 

It was a fantastic cast with people like Anna Chancellor and Jamie Glover. I have never laughed so much and made lifelong friends. But after that, I realised acting wasn’t for me.

I started writing plays and sent one in a brown envelope literally addressed to The BBC, London and a fantastic producer picked it up and they did it on Radio 4. One day I wanted someone to direct a version of it and I decided to have a go myself. Ever since I have had this three-pronged career.

I prefer theatre, as being on TV is more like being in a factory. Theatre is a knife edge and I still feel that now times ten because every day is fighting fires. I just wish I could make a living at it on its own.

How did lockdown affect you?

It was truly shocking and even now I’m struggling to acclimatise. I hadn’t been unemployed for 30 years. Suddenly it all stopped and, from an incredibly busy, stressful life there was just me, sat in a room. I was forced to say: “I’m not my career. Who am I? What do I believe in? What do I want to happen?”.

I discovered I had to make theatre because it was in my blood but I had to find a new way of doing it for life, during and after this wretched pandemic.

Before, I was glued to my diary and didn’t know who I was. Now, ironically, because of this project, I’m still a person rushing around putting on plays but I know why. It was a chance to throw it all up in the air and decide what I wanted to take from my old life into my new life. 

Also, for the first time in my life, I became penniless. I wasn’t wealthy before but never in my life, even as a student, had I had to stop and think: “Can I afford a coffee?”.

That was very sobering and fuelled me to think about how I could help other people in this situation. There are many wonderful people running food banks but I think as humans we have to be a bit more than that.

Why did you choose to perform classics?

I always assume people will be sick of things like Macbeth or Great Expectations and know them inside and backwards. 

But people come who have no idea of the story and who have never heard them and it’s so exciting to give people their first experience of these incredible pieces of work.

Shakespeare is this miraculous, ridiculous phenomenon because there are these words and every time you go back to them they mean something different. It’s endlessly rich and rewarding. 

Have you discovered any parallels between your latest production and your present situation?

Completely. Macbeth starts off with a very certain trajectory and then everything falls apart and it comes from an unexpected quarter, his encounter with the three witches, which feels a bit like our encounter with this strange disease which came out of nowhere.

He’s ruthless and violent and I’m not those things but we were all brought up to think about career and how we advance and get a better job.

Then, suddenly that rug is pulled away and we are in the situation that Macbeth is in. What does he pursue and what feels wrong? Of course he makes all the wrong choices, but watching him do that tells us a lot about our lives and our choices.

Are you happy with your choices?

I’m making the best choices I can and struggling every day to do it better. When we started, nobody showed up and now it has a little fanbase, so I’m sure there is a need for it. But it is endlessly exhausting not having any money.

Everything has to be found on the street or bought in the pound shop. There’s no way it can make money, unless it’s very heavily subsidised, because the pop-up theatres we make seat a maximum of 60 people. 

I haven’t taken another job so far, but will have to change that because it’s impossible to keep living on £20 a week. I just know we have to always be there for our community. So, no matter what, they can go to the theatre and see something fantastic.

How has the community responded?

It’s very difficult to get places to perform. I’m quite cross with some people who won’t let me put our theatre up in their forecourt. It’s troubling and has been a bit of an eye-opener.

Organisations that you think would go out of their way to help you find all sorts of by-laws and nonsense in order to justify saying no. But we are winning people over.

We need about 5m by 9m for our marquee and, if you give us that, we will create something magical for your part of the community. We don’t even need your electricity supply as we run everything on batteries.

What other help do you need?

We had a fantastic general manager, who has now moved on, so I’m looking. I feel there might be recent retirees out there who’d like to learn to project manage one show a year.

My absolute dream would be just to worry about what happened on stage. Also, if anyone has any money and would like to sponsor us, they would be contributing to something wonderful.

Will you perform any new plays?

I only want people who come to see masterpieces – nothing second rate because a bad theatre experience can mean you don’t go for the next 10 years.

I might write something about Doctor Salter and his wife who have statues on the riverbank because not many people know about them. They really suffered for what they believed but stayed and improved the area for everyone. 

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Rotherhithe: Author Tom Chivers shares an extract from his latest book London Clay

The Rotherhithe-based writer offers thoughts on his first non-fiction work and a slice of the text

Author Tom Chivers grew up in south London
Author Tom Chivers grew up in south London

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Recently released, London Clay is Tom Chivers’ first foray into non-fiction.

Billed as a “lyrical interrogation of a capital city, a landscape and our connection to place”, its 464 pages host a heady blend of historical research, reportage and personal memoir that promises to change the way its readers view urban areas.  

A published poet as well as an author, publisher and arts producer, south London-born Tom has lived in Rotherhithe with his wife and children since 2014.

He said: “I grew up on the River Effra, literally over it because it’s subterranean, and that made me realise there’s a whole world beneath the streets.

“When I was 17 I wrote a very long and bad poem called Effra, which was an attempt to reflect the lost rivers in writing and, ever since then, I’ve been interested in trying to capture the history and atmosphere of London – its speed, aggression and that underlying sense of violence one feels in the city.

“I wanted to show that strange dissonance between the London of high finance and the London of poverty and grime as well as the new London that’s rising above us now.

“My way in was the lost rivers – some of them are still flowing, but many are untraceable so you’re looking for fragments or remnants. I’m interested in the natural landscapes of London so I started looking at the geological foundations of the city. 

“The premise of London Clay is a series of walks, but it’s trying to understand how the deep city of geological strata has determined the history of the city, and also how we feel about it and approach it today.

“It’s not a traditional guidebook – firstly, each journey tries to get under the skin of the place and immerse readers in that weird landscape, trying to unpeel the surface of the city.

“Secondly, I would genuinely love it if people felt inspired, both to go to the places that I write about, but actually more so to go to places that they know, that they live in or maybe work in, and use that same method of starting with the geology.

“The extract here features my journey to the River Lea and, because I’d never been there, discovering this extraordinary landscape – the developer’s dream of London City Island, Bow Creek Ecology Park and the absolutely amazing Trinity Buoy Wharf populated by artworks all about immersing us in deep time – the perfect place to end my journey across the city.” 

London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City by Tom Chivers is published by Doubleday and costs £20 in hardback.

Detail from the cover of London Clay by Tom Chivers
Detail from the cover of London Clay by Tom Chivers


>> I arrive in Limmo to the music of screeching tyres: a silver hatchback flooring it out of the western roundabout of the Lower Lea Crossing.

Burnt rubber.


Tidal swill.

>> I had crossed the river to get here, to walk the final stretch of the Lea, on an empty train from Rotherhithe, before trekking through the former maritime ‘hamlets’ of Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliffe, Limehouse and Poplar – now one continuous development from the Tower Of London to the Lea.

The river is where it ends.

‘To start again. With a wiped slate’.

>> Leamouth: Limmo: Limbo. The purgatorial energies of the place are overwhelming. Ruined dock walls stand in the shadows of half-built towers, open to the wind; sales and marketing suites for future homes; concrete flyovers sunk into alluvial swamp; the brine-stink of Bow Creek, as the Lea is called down here, where the channel loops back on itself in a series of hairpin bends. 

The Lea once formed the border between Wessex and the Danelaw and it still feels like frontier land – London’s Wild East. On the near side, the Saxon kingdom of Alfred (urbane, Christian); on the far bank, the great heathen army of the Vikings under Guthrum. The earliest canalization of the Lea may date to this time, when in AD895, Alfred ordered the draining of its lower reaches to prevent the Viking fleet reaching the Thames from their base in Hertford. In the middle of the roundabout a giant figure surveys the traffic heading across the Lea – the three legs and disembodied face of Allen Jones’s Aerobic (1993) – a rusting, sheet-metal Matisse whose feet are barbed like arrowheads, like something dredged from the water.

>> I find a bench by Bow Creek and carefully disinfect my hands with antibacterial gel before wolfing down a shop-bought sandwich. A couple in matching Lycra stop for a photo, their beaming selfie framed by an island of green wilderness on the opposite bank, where dense vegetation spills over the steel revetments at the water’s edge. Storm clouds are gathering to the north as I cross to the island by a modern footbridge. 

The bridge spans the creek just below the nine-lane flyover of the A13 and also runs parallel with an abandoned single-track railway built in 1848 to carry goods between Canning Town and the East India Dock. The railway bridge is now covered with graffiti and rendered inaccessible by forests of weeds and nettles at either end. Nevertheless, I notice that a nylon hiking tent has been pitched on the empty trackway directly above the freezing tidal water. 

A fourth crossing – an ornamental pipe bridge carrying gas into London from the Beckton works – is remembered by a solitary brick pier on the east bank. The tent shakes violently in the wind gusting downstream.

Tom's work is billed as a 'lyrical interrogation of a capital city'
Tom’s work is billed as a ‘lyrical interrogation of a capital city’

>> The island across the water, I discover, is not wilderness at all but a carefully managed ecology park squeezed, ingeniously, on to a teardrop peninsula inside a loop of the creek. A branch of the Docklands Light Railway splits the narrow bar in two such that the park appears, in places, to be merely an extension of the railway verge. The geography is hair-raising. 

As I move along the island, deserted trains rush past on an elevated viaduct to the southern shore, where they appear to launch, unmanned, back across the creek, soaring like rollercoaster cars above the Lower Lea Crossing. The DLR track extends a dead-end railway siding marked on old maps and aerial photographs – the only visible feature of an otherwise muddy, contaminated wasteland. During the construction of the park in 1996, traces of mercury were detected in the ground, leading to the addition of an extra 40cm of topsoil. 

Where the Olympic Park struggles to contend with the vast scale of the Lea Valley, the Bow Creek Ecology Park has the benefit of intimacy; it takes around 10 minutes to complete a circuit on footpaths brimming with red clover and ox-eye daisy. Locals appear alone or in pairs: a jogger by a reed-filled mere; two women sharing a spliff in a shady bower beneath the railway embankment. Small white butterflies explode from bushes as giant bumblebees stumble, nectar-drunk, amid the wildflowers. I disappear into the undergrowth for a piss and for a moment, in the darkness between trees, I could be almost anywhere but here.

>> An information board tells me how the park’s wetlands are fed by groundwater from a borehole sunk into the mud to a depth of twelve metres. A pump is used to regulate the levels in two ponds connected by a weir. Every September, an area of meadow is deliberately inundated ‘to mimic the natural flooding of a river floodplain’. Here, as Sid observed, the natural is artificial – a simulacrum of the real thing. But the human is also part of nature; we are hustling at the edge of the frame, observers of a world to which we, too, are subject.

>> I follow the path out of the park and along Bow Creek. In this corkscrew geography, the east bank is now west, and across the mudflats another peninsula emerges. In shape it is an inverse facsimile of the first, a little larger perhaps; but in place of the dense foliage of the ecology park it is crammed with towering modern apartment blocks. The sheet metal revetments have been capped with brand-new concrete blocks and stainless-steel railings on which two men in matching polo shirts are leaning.

>> In truth, there is nothing ‘flat’ about the mudflats of Bow Creek. They swell and heave with the submerged ruins of innumerable wharves and slipways, timber piles and river stairs – here folding and unfolding like a satellite image of mountains, here fractured by deep gashes filled with rubble, nails, car tyres, rusting exhausts, chicken wire, road signs, aluminium cans, traffic cones, shopping trolleys, waste pipes and, a little upstream, a large steel litter bin. 

Everything that could have fallen into the creek has done; and everything that has done is covered in the same claggy, grey liquor. It is hard to resolve this hazardous, post-industrial topography with the upmarket development on the opposite bank. Unlike the upper reaches of the Lea, Bow Creek remains defiantly tidal. It is a dynamic environment that cannot easily be tidied away.

>> I cross a footbridge spanning the creek and City Island appears, as it is designed to, like a miniature version of Lower Manhattan. The name is a marketer’s invention – a place that is dense with history now reduced to its simplest forms. Island. City. City. Island.

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Canada Water: London Oktoberfest pitches up in Dock X on the Rotherhithe Peninsula

Event promises to blend German traditions with British atmosphere in an all-weather venue

In previous years London Oktoberfest has been held in tents

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Event venue Dock X is set to reverberate with the sounds of a party that started more than 200 years ago. The Canada Water warehouse space will host London Oktoberfest for three weekends this autumn. 

The tradition has its origins in a wedding party held in 1810 for the crown prince of Bavaria (who later became King Ludwig I), which lasted five days culminating in a horse race. Having got a taste for celebration, the following year an agricultural fair was tagged on with food and drink stalls for visitors.

By the 20th century these had become vast beer halls with each local brewery hosting up to 6,000 people a day over the last two weeks in September.  

Its something former banker Carsten Raun knows all about. It’s a tradition he’s successfully been bringing to London since 2011.

“It’s the 10th anniversary since we first brought the authentic Oktoberfest to London, which is a celebration in itself,” he said. 

“First of all, we’ll have the original beer and sausage from Germany, just as we always have, despite Brexit. The mood in the hall is always fantastic with live oompah music.

“The Brits and Germans share a love of beer, it’s a common theme between the two countries – we brought it to London and found people really love it. The German traditions and the British attitude fit together perfectly.

“This time we have some different ideas too. Dock X is a new venue for us and it means the weather won’t affect the event.

“In many ways it’s like the tents in Munich which are really permanent structures laid out like beer halls.

“There is no Oktoberfest there this year because they’ve decided it’s not the right time to hold an event that sees six million people come from all around the world. 

“We can do this in London because it is a local event with a capacity of 1,500 people and we’ll be following all of the government rules with hand sanitising available throughout the venue.”

Dancing and singing are encouraged at London Oktoberfest

For those quick off the mark, tickets are still available for the October 1-2 sessions at the Canada Water venue before the event returns to Rotherhithe from November 4-6 and 11-13.

For those prepared to travel to west London, there will be a chance to sup from a stein under canvas when London Oktoberfest pitches its traditional tent for Halloween from October 28-31. 

Those visiting the pop-up in Ealing’s Walpole Park are invited to dress up for a spooky session, with families also welcome on the Sunday.

Carsten said: “In addition to Halloween, we will also be hosting Pink Oktoberfest when we’re back in Canada Water on November 5.

“This started some years ago and now we’re hosting it for the LGBTQIA+ community to show there is some Oktoberfest for everybody – it will be very welcoming.

“While it is a new world since Brexit and the pandemic and it hasn’t been so easy to organise, we have found a way to bring the beer, the food and all our stuff to London.

“It’s something we want to keep doing. For all of our events, I hope people come and experience the same great atmosphere that we always had before Covid. It’s time to raise those steins again.

“It’s so exciting to be coming back to London again and it will be a really wonderful feeling to see people enjoying themselves. 

“We hope that the events we are hosting will act as a second freedom day so that people can have a chance to celebrate.”  

Prices for Oktoberfest start at £5 for general entry, with a multitude of options available including VIP and corporate packages. Dock X is located within easy walking distance of Canada Water station.

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