The legendary Roundhouse in Camden, North London, is coming back to life at last as a multi-purpose, state-of-the-art contemporary arts and performance (and part-time conference) space in June 2006 (See News, 25 May 2004).

At a press conference held yesterday to show off the £29.7 million refurbishment that is still in the process of being completed on the previously virtually derelict but landmark building, the Roundhouse’s chief executive Marcus Davey unveiled plans for its re-opening, that will see the return of the makers of De La Guarda – the Roundhouse’s previous biggest theatrical hit, that played for an 11 month sell-out run here in 1999/2000 – with their latest show Fuerzabruta.

Set to open on 5 June 2006 (following previews from 1 June), the new show features 12 performers hurtling through a 65-minute physical theatre show at breakneck speed, using every elemental force available, played out against a soundtrack of club beats and world music. The publicity also promises “strobe lighting, nudity (moderate), water (lots), scenes of a poetic, violent and beautiful nature and a whole lot of mess” that it labels “an all-standing rave of a show”.

This will unfold in the Roundhouse’s main space, originally built in 1846 by Robert Stephenson as a railway engine repair shed that was capable of housing 23 steam engines. It is a vast circular, circus-like arena that is endlessly adaptable to accommodate seating for up to 1,800 on two levels, in end-on, thrust stage and in-the-round configurations; or the seating can be removed to accommodate up to 3,300 people standing.

The auditorium’s roof has been replaced and its central glass lantern restored to allow natural light into the space for the first time since the 1860s, when the venue’s use was changed from repairing engines to acting a storeroom for spirits and wines and the glass was painted in to stop the sun from heating up the alcohol. The light can now be blocked out instead by manually-operated blinds.

A new wing – to be linked to the main space by a glass atrium - has also been added. It will house a café (scheduled to be open all day), bars, the box office, offices and a new studio space, to be named Studio 42 in recognition of Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42 that first launched the Roundhouse as an arts centre in the 1960s. Studio 42 will launch in June with Grassmarket Project’s latest show The Foolish Young Man, a collaboration that will feature actor David Harewood and 15 non-professional young performers, running from 1 to 4 June 2006 only.

The venue is also famous for the rock gigs it housed in the 1960s, including a now legendary appearance by The Doors in their only-ever UK gig. Subsequently, it became well known for presenting cutting-edge theatre, from Peter Brook’s production of The Tempest in 1968 and the Living Theatre (that saw a naked conga proceeding from here to Camden Town), and even the original home of Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta! in 1970, as well as a transfer house for Michael Elliot’s Royal Exchange, Manchester in the early 1980s, for a time, under the auspices of Thelma Holt.

But various efforts to put the Roundhouse on a permanent theatrical standing have floundered, including a temporary London residency for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2002 and, later that same year, a successful season for American writer and broadcaster Michael Moore’s solo stage show.

Underneath the Roundhouse, the previously little-used Undercroft has also been transformed into a warren of spaces called Roundhouse Studios. These will include facilities such as rehearsal rooms, sound recording studios, and video editing and production suites, to provide opportunities for up to 10,000 young people aged 13-25 to develop skills and explore their creative potential.

In the words of Torquil Norman, chairman and founder of the Roundhouse Trust: “I always dreamt that we would rebuild the Roundhouse not only to provide a wonderful space for audiences to enjoy music, theatre and the arts, but somewhere many thousands of young people would come to enjoy first-class facilities, equipment and support that will inspire them and help to give them experience that will be useful in day-to-day life. Now we have built it and all will be welcome.”

- by Mark Shenton