St James comes to WestminsterDate: 13 June 2012
Two famous old houses are about to be resuscitated, in name at least, on the one site later this year, as work on the new St James Theatre (dropping the apostrophe "s" of the old one) comes to a conclusion where the Westminster once stood, five minutes from Victoria Station.
Artistic director David Gilmore announces his programme, which launches in September, next week (although we know already that Max Stafford-Clark's touring revival of Our Country's Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker is slated as the fourth show), but I took a quick looksee yesterday afternoon at the invitation of Lady Lucy French, the development director.
A property company was given permission by Westminster City Council to build three dozen new flats on condition that a theatre - the first new purpose-built West End venue for thirty years (the last was the New London) - was incorporated at ground level.
The result looks promising: a 312-seater main house which is high, wide and handsome enough for a medium-sized musical; a basement 100-seater studio with bar (probably an upmarket version of Steve Marmion's new downstairs space at the Soho Theatre); a first floor restaurant with good views for sixty customers, open all day; facilities for live-streaming productions; and a plethora of ladies loos, ten in a row, nicely finished in aubergine.
Cameron Mackintosh's two younger brothers are involved: Robert is the joint CEO, while Nicky takes care of the catering, so maybe Cameron himself will be trying out the sort of small-scale musical show he envisaged in the never fulfilled Sondheim Theatre straddling the top floors of the Queen's and the Gielgud.
The old St James's, long since demolished, was a 19th century neighbour of the Haymarket and Her Majesty's, just off St James's Square, in the heart of gentlemen's clubland, and still noted for the first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, the artistic management, in the 1950s, of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and the long-running first production of Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables.
The Westminster in Palace Street, where the new theatre is located, has no comparably illustrious history. After the war it was run by the Oxford Group for Moral Re-Armament, and I recall grim outings to review stodgily "improving" pageants and even a tiresome poetic piece by Pope John Paul II, though there were non-MRA supported anomalies such as the fine thriller Dial M for Murder, Julian Slade's The Duenna, and the delightful Gershwin musical, Oh, Kay! starring Amanda Barrie. The place burnt down ten years ago, and nobody much minded.
Now, phoenix-like, it rises from the ashes, in a much modified form. I note the pub next door, also the Phoenix (where they used to ring the interval bell; no bars in the Westminster), is likewise undergoing a complete re-fit and refurb - and there's a fine Marks and Spencer. with a useful cafe, in the adjacent plaza of new office blocks - so this charming little hidden quartier is all set for popular rediscovery. It's handy, too, for the Goring Hotel, a discreet haven of civilised comfort, with an outstanding bar and restaurant.
There's no Arts Council money involved, so Lucy's got her work cut out raising corporate and private sponsorship. But she made a big difference in the recent fund-raising fortunes of Hampstead Theatre and the Open Air, Regent's Park, and she's very well connected (her great great grandfather was Field Marshall Sir John French, played in the film of Oh! What a Lovely War by Olivier, a lovely St James Theatre connection that even Lucy herself has not yet mentioned), so Gilmore's programme has a fair chance of hitting the mark. If it comes up to scratch, of course.
As all over London, the area around Victoria Station is an absolute shambles at the moment - the new word is "omnishambles" - and this goes on until 2017! But this part of town is rich in theatrical and showbiz folklore, with the Victoria Palace, home of the Crazy Gang, still in full cry with Billy Elliot, photos of the Goons still adorning the walls of the pub where they first got together, Jimmy Grafton's in Strutton Ground, and even the site of dear old Plays and Players magazine still identifiable in the basement of Artillery Mansions along Victoria Street, home to many a raffish politician and distinguished thespian.
The rebirth of the St James somehow brings all of this back into focus, for me at least, and I much look forward to travelling through the West End, round Trafalgar Square and along Whitehall on the 24 bus, and crossing the evocative St James portals once more later this year.