Spic & Newly SpanDate: 16 February 2004
Mark Shenton welcomes back three London theatres, now throwing open their doors again. The Frank Matcham-designed London Coliseum, home of ENO, & the Hackney Empire have their splendour restored while the suburban Wimbledon Theatre gets new management.
We’re in the midst of an extraordinary renaissance in the fabric of British theatre – literally so. When critics talk about the healthy state - or not - of the theatre, they usually mean the works on our stages, not the buildings that contain them. But after decades of neglect, the buildings themselves are being attended to, particularly in the public sector where lottery funding has been available.
Ailing West End theatres
Recent years have seen splendid re-fits for the Royal Court and Almeida, and completely new premises for Hampstead and Soho Theatres. The commercial West End, meanwhile, seeing what has been achieved, has cried wolf, claiming that some £250 million is needed to prop up its ailing venues.
That’s even as one of their number, Cameron Mackintosh, has pledged £30 million of his own money to refurbish the theatres he owns, which is at it should be since these are places of commercial business that do return significant profits to their managers. (In May, Mackintosh will duly re-open a lavishly refurbished Prince of Wales Theatre, but is going to partly make the public pay to the privilege of enjoying the work done. Tickets there will carry a 75p “theatre restoration” surcharge, as has been common practice on Broadway for a few years now).
Meanwhile, however, the past month has seen an extraordinary set of buildings being returned to the theatregoing public. Two of them are stunning jewels in the crown of the pre-eminent Victorian and Edwardian theatre architect Frank Matcham.
Hackney’s variety palace
Matcham’s suburban variety palace, the Hackney Empire – which first opened its doors in December 1901 – had gone from music hall to warehouse, television studio and bingo hall, before becoming a theatre again thanks to husband-and-wife team Roland and Claire Muldoon and a group of artists who acquired it in 1986 as a base for a touring company.
While they re-established Hackney as a place for inventive, eclectic work, particularly in promoting new comedy, the Empire was in famously decrepit conditions. As architect Tim Ronalds, who oversaw the refurbishment, recalls: “The combination of work ‘on the edge’ in the decaying glory of the theatre was magical. But the decay was real, and the theatre had to be renovated to survive.”
Now, at a cost of some £15 million, the Empire is back, and better than ever. Roland Muldoon picks up the story: “The theatre was really dog-eared, but we would also keep it that way so that we could point at how bad it was to show how much money we needed!” Thanks in particular to the tireless efforts of actor and comedian Griff Rhys Jones in leading the Fundraising Appeal, it was eventually found – and has been money well and truly well spent.
Entering another world
Looking around the opulent auditorium - beautiful plasterwork and a marble proscenium flanked by stage-side buttresses that are crowned by Indian domes - is to enter another world. It’s modelled on the designs of Italian opera houses and decorated in Rococo style, and it lifts the spirits even before the curtain goes up. The space is a show in and of itself.
But the Hackney Empire has not just been restored it to its former glory, it’s also been radically enhanced from a practical point of view, with new features including an orchestra pit that has been created to accommodate up to 60 musicians, a new backstage block that incorporates new dressing rooms, an extension to the height of the flytower, and improved access for people with disabilities.
All of this means that the east London venue is now ready to become, what Roland Muldoon calls, “a truly popular theatre, one that challenges conventions and expectations, where grand opera and world drama can happily play alongside pantomime, Jamaican farce and stand-up comedy. It is wonderful that now we’re finally there!”
London Coliseum’s make-over
Another Matcham creation that has had a spectacular make-over is the London Coliseum. The work done likewise returns the theatre not only to its original Edwardian splendour, but under the stewardship of architect Nick Thompson, also lavishly enhances this home of the English National Opera.
An additional 40% of public space has been carved out, with new and expanded bar facilities and a welcome doubling of the ladies loos. Matcham’s original curved glass roof, long ago dismantled, has been reinstated over the Balcony Bar to afford a dramatic view of the Coliseum’s imposing tower, on top of which sits the famous globe, spelling out the theatre’s name – and now, for the first time in a century, actually revolving again! (Owing to safety rules, the original basketwork revolve made of iron had been removed and replaced, until now, with a green fibreglass model that contained a flickering light to recreate the moving effect).
The Balcony foyer has also been extended into the Tower, the cosy Clore Education Room with a fluorescent-lit ceiling newly created there, opening out onto an outdoor balcony that affords magnificent views towards Trafalgar Square. But it’s the auditorium itself that is even more stunning, with Matcham’s original 1904 colour scheme of rich imperial purple, Italian reds and shades of gold and cream gorgeously reinstated, replacing the dull veneer of grey paint that used to hide so much of this theatre’s extraordinary detail.
Upstaging what’s on stage
In fact, the auditorium could very well upstage what’s on stage now at the Coliseum, but Thompson insists, “Going to the building is part of the event, as Matcham had always planned it to be. It had tea rooms and cigar-smoking areas – it was made for people to spend some time in, not just for them to come to see a performance at.”
To be true to this intention, he says, “It’s been absolutely fundamental in all the theatres we’ve done – and we’ve been involved in about 100 now – to get much greater freedom of movement around the building. I love the idea that you can move around a theatre and enjoy it in its totality before the performance, rather than being herded into some individual bar.” So access to the balcony, which used to be via a separate side entrance to the theatre, is now also via the main foyer, and everyone can go anywhere.
While the Coliseum project has taken some two-and-a-half years to complete (at a cost of £41 million), the theatre was only closed to public performances for the final eight months. A lot has been achieved in a very short time. No wonder that a last-minute delay has meant losing the opening opera, but in fact there’s a precedent for that, too: the 1904 opening was twice delayed, when first, rehearsals ran behind, and then a dense London fog settled!
More than tennis in Wimbledon
In South London, Wimbledon Theatre has also been closed for the past nine months, albeit for different reasons, a change in management. Its return puts Wimbledon – an area at the end of the District Line that is best known for the two weeks of the year when it becomes the focus of world tennis – back on the map as a year-round theatrical centre, too, offering local residents affordable theatre on their doorsteps.
“The size and beauty of Wimbledon Theatre wouldn’t disgrace the West End,” says Karin Gartzke, the theatre’s new chief executive, who works for Ambassadors Theatre Group. “There is a great deal of love and affection for this venue locally, and we would love for audiences from the rest of London to come out here, too. It’s very easy on the Tube and train, and you’re down here in two or three minutes from the station, plus there’s very cheap evening parking nearby. But we also have a wonderful environment here to see a show in, compared to some West End theatres!”
Gartzke, who also runs nearby Richmond Theatre for ATG, continues: “We have a very local, loyal audience in Richmond, as well as people who come from further away. Now they will be able to see things here that they couldn’t see in Richmond and vice versa. And that’s why I’m running both – so that I can oversee that the programme is complementary. Between them, we want to provide a broad, diverse programme of quality work to south-west London, and I think that audiences in this area will have some of the best offers in the country within their reach now.”