“There’s nothing better than watching people come to the Old Fitz for the first time,” producer and creative director of Red Line Productions, Andrew Henry, tells Broadsheet. “They walk into this pub, in the middle of the housing commission in Woolloomooloo, and it’s like ‘Where are we? What is this strange place?’ I love that and I don’t think there’s enough of it around our city.”

Patrons who come to see a show at the Old Fitz Theatre, the 55-seater in the bowels of Woolloomooloo’s beloved 150-year old pub, have always rubbed shoulders with the locals before descending the stairs into the dimly lit basement.

The theatre was founded by independent group Tamarama Rock Surfers in 1997 and became the “underbelly of Australian theatre”. It was instrumental in the early careers of luminaries such as Tim Minchin, Sarah Snook, Brendan Cowell, Kate Mulvany, Toby Schmitz, Ewen Leslie, Sarah Giles, Mark Priestly and Blazey Best.

“When I first moved to Sydney from Lithgow I would come here to see shows,” says Henry, who started his career as an actor at the Old Fitz and whose theatre company, Red Line Productions, took over the space in 2013. “It never felt like ‘Going to The Theatre’. Instead, it was this extraordinary old pub where, at one table, you would see men wearing suits, drinking expensive wine, and at the next, a completely different demographic sipping their VBs.”

The Woolloomooloo pub was taken over by hospitality group Odd Culture (The Oxford Tavern, The Duke Of Enmore, Odd Culture Newtown) at the end of 2020, and recently unveiled a new 100-seat outdoor-dining area. The group has been committed to maintaining the spirit of the historic space, while installing head chef, Anna Ugarte-Carral (ex-Momofuku Seiobo, and Noma, Copenhagen), to elevate its pub grub.

“The theatre was definitely the reason we took on the task,” James Thorpe, Odd Culture’s owner and group general manager, tells Broadsheet. “The performing arts were so affected by Covid we saw this as a special opportunity to give our support. The Old Fitz is not just a pub [and restaurant], and it’s not just a theatre. It’s a really special melding of worlds. It’s unlike any other venue in Sydney.”

Louis Nowra, the celebrated playwright and an Old Fitz regular, wrote a history of Woolloomooloo (Woolloomooloo: A Biography) that centred around the pub. In 2018, he immortalised the pub’s locals with This Much is True, a play written for the space.

“Its clientele of tradies, maddies, housos, meth chemists, transgender [people], con men and assorted ratbags appealed to me greatly,” Nowra tells Broadsheet. “One reporter wrote of the locals drinking there at the time, that it seemed as if they treated the front bar like their living room.”

“Red Line brought a consistency and excitement to the space, and both Andrew and Vanessa [Wright, co-founder of Red Line Productions] made sure there was no separation between the theatre people and the drinkers. The locals were invited to see the shows – and many came. Instead of a separation between the two, there was now a bonding for the first time.”

The programming at The Old Fitz has been given three sets of fresh eyes with the appointments of new artistic directors Catherine Văn-Davies, Alexander Berlage and Constantine Costi.

“They don’t just roll out the hits, and similarly, they don’t just roll out the unknowns,” Henry says. “Rather they juxtapose well-known plays with new devised works. We constantly change it up and we ask people to come on that journey with us.”

Happy Days, Samuel Beckett’s 1961 Absurdist masterpiece opened over the weekend at the Old Fitz. The play was named by the Independent as one of the 40 best plays of all time and tells the story of Winnie, who wakes up buried to the waist in a burnt-out post-apocalyptic wasteland, with nothing but the contents of her purse. To make matters worse, her husband, Willie, has stopped talking to her. It’s no stretch to see how Beckett’s absurdly funny, existential tale of isolation has of-the-moment relevance.

Playing the role of Winnie is Australian stage and screen legend Belinda Giblin who, in addition to her many theatre credits, plays the role of Martha Stewart on Home and Away. Distinguished actor, writer and director Lex Marinos (The Last Days of Chez Nous, Backyard Ashes) plays the role of Willie. The duo are directed by Craig Baldwin, who recently relocated home to Sydney after living and working in the US.

In the eight years since the inception of Red Line Productions, the company has swollen in size, producing hits like Sydney Festival 2020’s headlining show, Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined. But it’s the space itself that remains the bedrock of the company.

“I love that when we have a hit show, it doesn’t matter how early people book their tickets, or how much money they have in the bank, they’re still going to have to line up – and line up for way too long because we’ll probably ring the bell late – and they’re going to have to pile into a little room, in unallocated seating, and experience it with everyone else,” Henry says.

“Even though people bitch and moan about those elements, at the end of the day they come out saying, this is pretty fucking cool.”

Happy Days runs until July 3, 2021.