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Friday, 29 July 2011

The Onion Shed

"You're telling me that these onion-toting Frenchmen actually existed? Nooooo!"*

  This gangly, slightly crumbling outbuilding, located at 13 Lothian Street, South London, is similar in design to many identical structures lining the Victorian streets that crisscross the Camberwell area in Lambeth. 
  Yet, it strikingly stands out from its fellow dark-bricked constructions in that the middle space between the large arched window on the first floor, which provides the only source of light in the edifice, and the large red door below, is painted white and boldly emblazoned with a chocolate brown hand-painted sign bearing the cryptic words "The ONION SHED."

  On the homepage of the Lambeth Council, a paragraph describing the neighbourhood offers an indication of one of the building's most recent employments : "In between Oval, Camberwell and Brixton, this mostly residential area is in the middle of a massive restructuring and regeneration programme. It is home to the Minet Library, the much loved Onion Shed Theatre and Myatt's Field Park." 
  According to the records published on the UK Theatre Web, the theatre was active between 1997 and
2001, during which interval it hosted 19 different shows. It was founded as an educational charity by playwright/director Monica Lissak in the aim of  "advanc[ing the] education of the public in the arts," as the Charity Commission officially puts it, until it "ceased to exist" in 2004.
  During its short-lived but apparently fruitful existence, it served as a venue for theatrical productions spanning virtually every dramatic genre, from Ms Lissak's reflective tragedy Joan of Arc (1998), to Peter Shaw's romantic comedy Love at First (later featured in the 2003 session of the Edinburgh Fringe festival) or yet again the amateur show The Insect Play by the drama training association Wrong Exit. It also hosted musical events like gigs by the self-described "socialist and feminist a capella singers" group Velvet Fist.  
  So far, I haven't been able to ascertain by what circuitous route such an unconvential, out of the way, and probably rather cramped though certainly atmospheric scene came to be converted into a playhouse-cum-concert hall.

  A mystery which might be easier to solve is the origin of its seemingly puzzling name.
  Before the ongoing rehabilitation programme, the Lambeth district indeed used to be home to a large number of the French onion sellers working in the London area. 
  Frozen in time as it seems to be, its rough-edged working-class character not having yet been renovated away, 13 Lothian street is actually archetypical of the buildings onion men would have rented during their 6-months' stay in Britain. 
  Usually located in the poorer outskirts of towns, these houses served the threefold function of warehouses to store their merchandise, workhouses where the onions were stringed into braided bundles, and precarious lodgings where the workers took their evening meals and got their short night's rest.

* Source: August 28, 2007 thread "The Onion Shed" from the Urban75 forum.