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Looking beyond the West End: should London have more versatile spaces?

 Tuesday, 6th March, 2018

Words by Mark Shenton

London is rightly regarded as one of the world's capital's of professional theatre, with the West End providing a central focus of its activities - though far from confined to it, with a sprawling network of fringe and found spaces (like converted warehouses, chapels and more, like the Donmar and Almeida, challenging them). But the West End's collection of often stunning buildings, many dating from the Victorian and Edwardian eras - has both offered a template and a home for how we think of theatregoing: that it takes place in a grand old auditorium, with the audience typically layered in three (or even four) tiers (stalls, dress circle, upper circle and sometimes balcony), all facing a proscenium arch stage in front of them. 

This model also mostly applies on Broadway, too, though one or two theatres break the mould: in London, the National Theatre has the wide-open thrust stage of the Olivier, with the audience seated in a giant amphitheatre on two levels. While on Broadway, there's the Circle in the Square theatre on 50th Street, which has the audience wrapped entirely around a stage in the centre of it. 

But by and large, we are stuck with the spaces we've got. Or are we? Cameron Mackintosh has recently been granted planning permission by Camden Council to transform the Grade II listed Ambassadors Theatre in West Street into a highly adaptable, flexible modern studio performance space, seating upto 475 people, which is to be renamed the Sondheim Theatre.  

It is envisaged that this will make it a perfect destination for transfers from regional spaces like Sheffield's Crucible and Birmingham Repertory theatre that do not have not conventional layouts. 

According to a spokesperson, "Delfont Mackintosh Theatres continues with its extensive programme of refurbishment of the fabric of its theatres – committed expenditure to date tops £125 million – including the ongoing spectacular reinvention of the Victoria Palace for the opening of the musical Hamilton." 

So as well as preserving the past and ensuring its future, Mackintosh's plans are now keeping pace with changing demands on theatre makers, too. 

Another leading London theatre producer Sonia Friedman recently commented to The Stage, "We’ve got a generation of theatre directors, designers and writers coming up and wanting to work in different types of spaces. I happen to work in the West End and they are of a particular type of space – beautiful, wonderful, but they are proscenium-arch spaces. I think the next phase of my career is to try to find different ways of using our spaces but also use other spaces. Something that the Society of London Theatre and the West End community need to do is think about other spaces so the work can diversify. I think we are missing a whole body of work for the West End because we don’t have the spaces.

Nick Hytner and Nick Starr - former artistic director and executive director of London's National Theatre have also sought to address this with their post-NT partnership on creating the brand-new Bridge Theatre beside Tower Bridge. As Hytner commented in an interview, "The restriction of West End houses means you are always going to have to bend to the discipline that [architect] Frank Matcham imposes on you. Those theatres are great, they’re wonderful. Some are masterpieces, but right from the beginning we wanted more flexibility.

The first production there Young Marx played in a conventional end-on thrust arrangement, like a West End house but only with some members of the audience wrapped around in gallery seating on the sides of each circle. The current showing of Julius Caesar offers an in-the-round promenade space, with some audience members sharing the space with the actors on the ground floor, with other seated members in the circles around it. 

It has not shifted the theatrical axis away from the West End, too: as Hytner also said, "It’s bewildering that theatre has remained so umbilically attached to one little corner of London. We’re not saying the West End will be superseded, but it must be time to look elsewhere."  

That idea of looking elsewhere is one that was radically embraced nearly three years ago when a pop-up tent theatre was created at King's Cross that became a bespoke traverse home for The Railway Children that was later joined by an immersive production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights; before a second space was added for the Donmar all-female Shakespeare trilogy and then a third space for the UK premiere of David Bowie's Lazarus.  

Each space was configured specially for the staging demands of each show (in the case of The Railway Children that included running a railway track down the middle of the theatre, on which a full-size train was shunted). 

There are now plans to reactivate this scheme on a new site, possibly at White City. Producer Tristan Baker, who co-ran the King's Cross initiative, commented at the time, "We have a great team and all the infrastructure and knowledge, for us, it’s not the building of the site, it’s the space. Give us a space and we will build you a theatre. That’s the bit we can do.

I, for one, can't wait for its return.