Exclusive: Arts Reopens as Off-West Venue in OctDate: 27 July 2006
Last summer, the historic 340-seat Arts Theatre (pictured), which was the first London home to the Royal Shakespeare Company and which marks its 75th anniversary in 2007, closed ahead of possible demolition at the same time as, on the other side of Leicester Square, the 150-seat Sound Theatre, carved from a nightclub in the Swiss Centre, opened for business (See News, 25 May 2005). This summer sees a reversal of those announcements.
Less than a week after the management of the Sound Theatre confirmed that it will close on 26 August 2006 after the current run of Toby Frow’s revival of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, making way for a new hotel complex, the Arts Theatre has confirmed that it will be back in business by this October, under new management with a more varied programme of short-run music and comedy as well as theatre shows.
Invited guests will have a sneak peek at the ‘new-look’ Arts - restyled as an Off-West End venue, albeit in the heart of the West End geographically – with a showcase event tonight (Thursday 27 July 2006). To give a flavour of future programming, Seventies pop star Alvin Stardust will present his acoustic session Alvin Ungloved while Steve Rawlings and his jugglers will perform extracts from their Tossers: More Balls than Most. Both shows will be seen next month at the Edinburgh Fringe ahead of possible London dates at the Arts as part of a limited six-week season of festival transfers.
The Arts’ new programmer Martin Witts told Whatsonstage.com that the intention is to create a “pure Off-West End theatre” where productions will run for a maximum of six to eight weeks rather than competing for 10- to 12-week West End engagements and where there will be eclectic late-night programming to complement primetime shows. The theatre’s “trendy” street-level bar and café will, he said, also be key to creating a new “buzzy” atmosphere. “We want it to be a place where you can come and get pissed with your mates or bring your family for tea.”
Built in 1927, the Arts started as a theatre club to avoid the Lord Chamberlain’s stage censorship. In the 1940s and 50s, a young Peter Hall directed the UK premieres of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Eugene O'Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra and Jean Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors. Other notable UK or world premieres have included Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer. From 1966 to 1988, following a short-lived inaugural capital venture for the RSC, the Unicorn Children’s Theatre set up residence at the Arts.
In 2000, after a period of darkness and a £250,000 renovation of the front-of-house bar and café (funded by the theatre management), the Arts became a member of the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), thereby classifying it as a West End theatre, and hosted productions including Another Country, Gagarin Way, Closer to Heaven, The Vagina Monologues, Happy Days, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, Hurricane, Caroline O'Connor’s Whatsonstage.com Award-winning Bombshells, the RSC’s Tynan with Corin Redgrave, Fully Committed and Toby Young’s How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.
Last July, the theatre shut its doors when then-director Edward Snape halted programming following disputes with landlords at the India-based Gamma Investments about the building’s upkeep in light of plans to redevelop the entire block as a hotel complex (See News, 1 Jul 2005).
Although the commercial redevelopment plans remain in place in the long-term, since then, the property has been sold to more amenable landlords. Witts and his partners at Jack in the Box Theatres Ltd have negotiated a five-year lease and a first option on the new theatre which must be built as part of any new complex under Westminster City Council planning laws designed to preserve the address for theatrical use.
Details of the first three months of the relaunched Arts’ programming are due to be announced in the coming weeks.
- by Terri Paddock