The Pheasantry -the third of my series on London’s cabaret venues and its vibrant cabaret scene.
“..its own remarkable history..2nd place in the London Lifestyle Awards 2012 as Best Live Music Venue..”
Some of us remember Pizza on the Park with great fondness and still mourn its passing. Fortunately, when that great institution of the London jazz and cabaret scene closed its doors to become a hotel, Ross Dines – young music manager of the Dean St, Soho and Maidstone branches of the PizzaExpress chain, was there to help.
Here is his story.
Ross is an amateur player of piano and guitar with eclectic tastes. Not wanting to become a professional musician, he opted to study Music Production at Kent University. This led to his employment as a sound engineer in various clubs, pubs and festivals, and eventually the Maidstone PizzaExpress Music Room.
Before long, his business cards were flying out of the room and soon he became programming manager, as well as sound engineer. For at least two years in a row, his programmes became the highest profiting season in the venue’s history. When a vacancy arose in Dean St, he became Music Manager in both the venues.
By 2008, the licence for Pizza On the Park was already under threat, but Ross felt he could revive the venue’s fortunes by specialising in cabaret there, rather than mimicking the jazz programmes of Dean St. Shows sold out every night , but the fatal letter eventually arrived, giving them just six months notice to vacate the premises.
The jazz and cabaret worlds, and their audiences, were devastated. At that time, there really was virtually nowhere in London to perform the kind of cabaret that was so loved there.
The Pheasantry, however, with its own remarkable history, was about to become another PizzaExpress house with the basement potentially a good performance space. Ross took the grand piano, the staff and the equipment from Pizza On the Park and transplanted them to The Pheasantry and embarked on a trail period there.
The Pheasantry is a beautiful historic Georgian building and was originally an actual pheasantry for the royal household. Famous ballerina Serafima Alexandrovna Astafieva opened a school there on the first floor in 1916 (the floor, barre and mirrors are still there) and she taught prima ballerinas Alicia Markova and Margot Fonteyn.
Eleanor Thornton, thought to have been the model for The Spirit of Ecstasy mascots on the bonnets of Rolls Royce cars, lived there and Dylan Thomas drank there when it was a club in the 1930’s. During the swinging 60’s the Pheasantry became a place for the artistic avant- guard, housing within its walls none other than Eric Clapton, and Germaine Greer wrote the great feminist tome ‘The Female Eunuch’. The Beatles had one of their album sleeves photographed in the building, and singer Yvonne Elliman was discovered there by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, leading to her role in the original soundtrack recording of Jesus Christ Superstar.
It was in 2010 that I was able to appear there myself. I had a one-woman show “20th Century Woman: the Compact Cabaret” outlining the changing preoccupations of women during the 20th Century and up to now, and the opportunity to perform on International Women’s’ Day in the same place that Germaine Greer had written ‘The Female Eunuch’ was just irresistible!
The venue, whilst still a fairly new place, is undoubtedly proving a success and has since undergone major refurbishments. It was honoured by winning 2nd place in the London Lifestyle Awards 2012 as Best Live Music Venue, coming 2nd only to the Royal Albert Hall.
Ross says: ‘The downside of my job is the constant pressure of getting the audiences’, and being the music manager of all 3 venues must indeed be a headache at times. Just the same, being part of a chain of venues has its advantages. All three venues share the same website and can cross-promote.
The Pheasantry will house some acts programmed for the Cabaret Festival launching later on this year – watch this space!
I asked Ross about his feelings regarding the future of cabaret in London. He says, ‘Much of the cabaret’s future depends a lot on how it is delivered now. London is a very big place and if the shows continue to be good, the product (the combination of good food and entertainment)at a reasonable price, then the genre and venues tick all the boxes. With the current passion of both performers and venue managers, along with continual careful monitoring, the seeds sown in the past couple of years should grow well.’
We’re with you there, Ross!