Panic at the bistro?

Should cabaret lovers be concerned by the closure of Bistrotheque's cabaret space?

Bistrotheque Napoleon bar Bistrotheque Napoleon bar

Don't worry, says Ben Walters – one of London's most exciting cabaret spaces might be closing, but it's just the start of something bigger and better…

There was nothing quite like Bistrotheque when it opened in 2004 in an unmarked industrial building on Wadeson Street in Bethnal Green. Although it was predominantly a restaurant, co-owner Pablo Flack invited Jonny Woo, who had recently moved back from New York, to put on a night called Tranny Lip Synching. ‘The cabaret room grew out of that,’ Flack says. ‘It was a very organic process – very enjoyable.’

That small, 60-seater black-box room would prove to be the cradle of east London’s alt-drag revolution, providing a lo-fi, anything-goes space in which Woo, the Lip Sinkers, Bourgeois & Maurice, Ryan Styles, Scottee and many more developed their practice. The announcement that the room will be demolished as part of the venue’s reconfiguration this year has therefore got tongues wagging with uncertainty and concern at the removal of such a seminal part of the scene’s ecosystem.

'It’s time to shake things up'

‘It’s a gut feeling,’ Flack says. ‘After eight years, it’s time to shake things up. Bistrotheque has never been busier – the restaurant or the cabaret room – but I’d rather change it than let it get staid.’ Flack and partners David Waddington and Tom Collins (the venue’s chef) will spend around £500,000 reshaping the first floor into a new bar-restaurant. On the ground floor, the cabaret room and bar will be knocked through to create a flexible 120-capacity studio space. Planning is still vague but it’s likely the current space will close by early March to reopen around May.

Food at Bistrotheque Food at Bistrotheque

Flack acknowledges financial factors play a role. ‘Fundamentally, we’re a restaurant – that’s 90 per cent of our workforce, that’s how we pay our staff and make our money. We’ve never made any money out of the cabaret room. But we’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s not going to be a public bar where we’re selling drinks and there might be a show on in the corner. We see it as a ticketed event venue.’

It will no longer be a cabaret room as such. ‘We want to use our local geography [Wadeson Street is next to gallery hotspot Vyner Street] to have parties for art galleries, fashion shows, film events, speakers, debates. There’ll also be a kitchen down there and we’re hoping to invite restaurants from around the world to take up residencies.’

'You have to grow with the best of your performers'

The cabaret room The cabaret room

Progressive cabaret will, however, remain a core element. ‘We care passionately about things like UnderConstruction [the long-running experimental performance night], which is absolutely brilliant. That’s the sort of thing we want to do more of – getting a really good local audience, making connections between performers, helping people come through. And you have to grow with the best of your performers – the bigger new room will suit people like Jonny Woo and Bourgeois & Maurice. I am a businessman but I have to think it’s interesting or I can’t get out of bed in the morning.’

'My inspiration for that space expired. It’s become predictable'

Jonny Woo Jonny Woo - © Rob Greig

Woo is broadly supportive of the reconfiguration. ‘When Bistrotheque started, it was unique,’ he recalls. ‘I was allowed to do whatever I wanted and push my ideas as far as I could. But I think my inspiration for that space expired about 18 months ago. It’s become predictable. Creating new challenges is always a good thing. Maybe spoken word won’t work so well [in the new room], but the shows will move around the space more. I do suspect we might lose a space where really scratch performances can be developed, though.’

‘They’re knocking down our tranny tent!'

Lisa Lee, member of the Lip Sinkers and programmer of UnderConstruction, is also hopeful. ‘They’re knocking down our tranny tent! We can’t quite believe it’s happening, but if it is, bring it on! Obviously, there’s lots of nostalgia – we’ve had a great time there and created a lot of bespoke work, but we’ve used that space every way possible, and it has huge limitations: the tech box is in a funny place, there are no wings.’ The stage’s location, next to the main entrance and across the auditorium from the dressing room, doesn’t help, either. ‘Our shows have been sold out for quite a while now so it should be an opportunity to spread our wings. I think the work will still have that arty, on-the-edge rawness, just in a bigger space. And if not, we’ll just have to build a shed out back…’

For latest events and venue details check out our Bistrotheque listing.