Plans Approved to Rebuild Westminster TheatreDate: 15 May 2009
As previously tipped (See The Goss, 11 May 2009), the Westminster Theatre, which burnt down in 2002, is set to rise from the ashes as a new “Menier Chocolate Factory-style” development after Westminster City Council met last night and approved plans for its redevelopment. Building work will commence within the next month ahead of a summer 2010 opening.
The £10 million restoration of the 250-year-old building in Palace Street, opposite the Victoria Palace, home of Billy Elliot, is designed by Loates-Taylor Shannon Architects. The new eight-storey complex, with a Portland Stone façade, will include a 314-seat main theatre as well as a smaller cabaret stage for jazz and world music performances, a restaurant/bar and 35 new flats.
The two performance spaces and restaurant/bar, with a capacity of just over 100 covers, will be run by start-up company London Aloft. The theatre will boast a new area created as a “floating acoustic box” for state-of-the-art soundproofing, designed by leading theatre architect Tim Foster. London Aloft’s team includes chief executive Stephen Mitchelson, artistic director Gregory Thompson and patron Steven Berkoff, who aims to direct at least one production a year at the venue.
Speaking to Whatsonstage.com, Mitchelson explained that, for the first 12 to 18 months while it proves its commercial viability as a “destination venue” for a combined theatre and dining experience that receives no Arts Council funding, Westminster Theatre will largely act as a receiving house for regional shows from the subsidised sector that “wouldn’t normally get a London showing”.
One of the conditions of the applications is that, if London Aloft defaults its lease or the property developer fails to transfer the venue to the theatre company, the lease will be given to the Theatres Trust.
Originally the St James' Picture House, the original Westminster Theatre building was opened in 1923 on the site of the Charlotte Chapel, which was erected in 1766. In 1931, the venue was transformed into a theatre, with a capacity for more than 1,500. Despite the efforts of Save London Theatres Campaign, Westminster City Council granted permission for developers to demolish it in 2001 and the theatre closed in 2002, after which a fire razed most of the structure (See News, 17 Dec 2001).
A subsequent high-profile plan, Talawa’s £9.3 million Westminster Theatre Project to establish the first major black-led arts institution in central London, also failed after Arts Council funding was withdrawn (See News, 14 Jul 2005).
Speaking about the new plans, Councillor Robert Davis, committee chairman and Westminster City Council's deputy leader, said: "The loss of this theatre was a sad day for the city, but I am confident these plans will give this historic site a new lease of life as a cultural hub in the heart of Victoria.
"Theatre has helped shaped our city over centuries and forms the lifeblood of its cultural and entertainment offer which attracts visitors from around the world. The theatre industry contributes more than a £1 billion to London's economy so it is vital we support it at every opportunity. It is testament to its enduring appeal that, even in the midst of a recession, we can have an exciting, new and in my opinion well-designed addition to Theatreland."
- by Terri Paddock