Douglas Blyde plays mother as he meets playwright turned pub landlord, Sean Mathias…
I meet Sean Mathias by a brass plaque in memory of popular East-ender, Gilda O’Neill, ‘friend, neighbour, best-selling author’ at his antique pub, The Grapes. ‘I used to live next-door with Ian McKellen,’ he says, looking towards the muddy-jade Thames. ‘The publican’s life is a burnout career and when the landlady, Barbara Haigh, was selling, Ian looked for friends to run it. But then Paul, my life partner at the time, thought he’d prefer to do it, and then Evgeny Lebedev said he’d like to join in. That was September 2011.’
Predominantly a playwright and theatre director, Sean muses on the similarities encountered in his other career. ‘What’s interesting is that I spent my whole life in the theatre, with a little in film and TV, then suddenly in my mid-50s I entered another business where you’re there for the public, where all sorts of things go wrong, but you’ve still got to be ready to open those doors.’
English Breakfast tea arrives on what I can only describe as a British Rail-style tray. As I pour, Sean confides the first year-and-a-half of trading proved problematic for four first-time publicans. ‘The regulars believed they had a certain claim on the place. When we painted nicotine-white walls burgundy it brought the street to a standstill. Then we changed the bar stools for bigger ones and were told we’d turned it into a Russian nightclub!’
The Grapes grew in prominence when the local wine bar closed down. ‘We saw, though not with glee, ‘Booty’s’ close suddenly which meant we were the only bar on the block. The nearest competition is Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Narrow’, which is very different in style. Eventually we started to become known as the good old-fashioned boozer on the river, and began getting a new clientele.’
Paul Mathias had what Sean calls the ‘bright idea’ of starting a quiz night. ‘It doubled our business every Monday. Sir Ian often comes if he’s in town – and that attracts a further crowd. I come very occasionally, although I find the questions far too difficult.’ Sean also changed the fish restaurant into a bistro, ‘with tablecloths, flowers, candles and cut glasses.’
Sean considers the building a heritage site, being one of the (or ‘ye’) oldest pubs in London – it dates back to 1583. ‘We pay a huge amount in rent and repair, but we never perceived it from the get-go as a business enterprise; it’s a small, romantic thing. We’re all very proud of it, employing a lot of people and providing a service to the community.’ Could it ever be rolled out, I ask? ‘In terms of turning it into a Soho House? It’s not what Ian, Evgeny nor I, do.’
Customers in pin-striped suits begin their lunchtime pageant for big, battered, fish and chips. ‘Good footfall just past 12,’ reports Sean. Meanwhile, his glossy sausage dog, Digby, sniffs the brogue of a returnee from the bar counter. Sean apologises, but the customer is far from unhappy. ‘How could that dog possibly be in the way?’
Overall, Sean sees The Grapes as a stalwart ‘character moment’ on this glassy horizon. ‘When I first lived here in 1980, it was a beautiful, bleak, exciting enclave of Victorian buildings. It is amazing how we are sandwiched between two skylines today. Looking up to Canary Wharf, that was our Silicone valley. But opposite, there is still a feel of originality at Rotherhithe, which is brilliantly reproduced.’
Despite the irks of upkeep, Sean, who, since purchasing The Grapes, divides his time between London and New York, finds a sense of comfort in the pub. ‘I wait for months and months for projects to fall into place, then generally, they all go at once. To have this pub and a hand in decisions has been kinda nice and reassuring.’
What is falling into place, I ask? ‘I’ve mostly done classic plays, but I am developing new projects including a stage production of ‘The Exorcist’. An extraordinary thing to do, it requires an illusionist and projectionist.’ Sean arches an eyebrow and rolls his ‘r’s’. ‘I’m also developing a horror movie. Somewhat Dead is set in the New Forest, with a lot of twists and turns, being very visual – Gothic – with amazingly original characters. Quite camp and… quite violent!’
Why is horror of interest? ‘Horror movies appeal to a very young audience and young people are the people who go to movies. I’ve only done one film, ‘Bent’, but going back in is very exciting. A lot of characters will only be partially dead, not wholly dead, but I can’t give away the secret of how they remain alive, because that would be giving away the plot…’
Starring Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, Sean is also bringing Harold Pinter’s ‘No Man’s Land’ from Broadway to Britain. Both actors featured in Sean’s rendition of ‘Waiting for Godot’, too. ‘There’s a tenderness and emotion in Godot,’ says Sean. ‘Enduring friendship in a very lonely world. The greatness is it really runs the gamut of human emotions.’
Something that compliments running a pub as well as the play, it seems.
The Grapes, 76 Narrow Street, Limehouse, London E14. For more information, including Sir Ian McKellen’s history of the pub, visit www.thegrapes.co.uk.