At a London press conference held today, the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) unveiled full plans for the creation of two new West End performance spaces. The Trafalgar Studios – one housing up to 400 seats, the other 100 seats – are being carved out of the West End’s existing Whitehall Theatre. While common in the subsidised sector, the remodelled building, currently under construction, will mark the first time that two such studios will exist beneath one roof in the commercial West End.

As previously reported (See News, 2 Apr 2004), the larger studio will be inaugurated next month with the transfer of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Othello, starring Sello Maake ka Ncube and Antony Sher, which has just finished its season at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Swan Theatre. Following a five-week tour of Japan, it will have a limited season at Trafalgar Studios from 3 June to 3 July 2004 (previews from 26 May).

Speaking at today’s press conference, RSC associate director Gregory Doran, who also directed the Shakespeare tragedy, admitted that, “It has always been hard for the RSC to find spaces in London that in any way represent the Swan experience.” The company had considered transferring Othello to the Young Vic, where it’s taken several Swan productions in the past, but the South Bank venue’s two-year closure for a £12.5 million renovation, which begins this August, blocked that possibility.

Home from home for the Young Vic

Instead, the Young Vic will itself now follow the RSC into the new West End venue. Its acclaimed 2003 revival of Langston Hughes musical Simply Heavenly will move into the larger of the Trafalgar Studios from early September. Exact dates and casting are yet to be confirmed, though it’s hoped that Ruby Turner and Clive Rowe will reprise their Award-nominated roles.

Young Vic artistic director David Lan, also at today’s event, said that “a new 400-seat theatre in the West End is the Holy Grail”. The Young Vic’s earlier attempts to transfer Simply Heavenly had been foiled due to a shortage of suitable venues. While there are two other West End theatres of similar size – the New Ambassadors and the Fortune – they have been tied up with, Stones in His Pockets and the long-running thriller The Woman in Black. Lan said a number of other successful Young Vic shows had ended prematurely for the same reason.

Lan hinted that the transfer of Simply Heavenly was only the beginning of more extensive collaborations with ATG, which has previously backed Young Vic productions such as Doctor Faustus, starring Jude Law. Discussions are already underway about future shows that could be staged at Trafalgar Studios and, while there will be co-productions and tours with others, during its South Bank interregnum, Lan regards the ATG space as the Young Vic’s new “home in London”.

From Whitehall to Trafalgar

In addition to the Young Vic and the RSC’s Swan, other similarly sized venues around London and the UK from which the 400-seat space at Trafalgar Studios hopes to receive productions include the Royal Court Downstairs, the National’s Cottesloe Theatre and the Sheffield Crucible studio.

The 100-seat space, which will be dedicated to new work, is on schedule to open in September, although programming for it has not yet been announced. As part of the alterations to the existing Whitehall, being undertaken by Tim Foster Architects, front of house areas and technical facilities at the new venue will also be improved.

Opened in 1930, the art deco-style Whitehall Theatre has an historic past, once home to the famous Whitehall Farces while under the management of Brian Rix. Long-running hits at the theatre have included When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout, Run for Your Wife and Anyone for Denis?.

ATG acquired the Whitehall in 2000 and, during a review of its many West End properties last summer, closed it indefinitely, laying off six staff in the process (See News, 26 Jun 2003). That autumn, the transfer of Rat Pack Confidential seemed to signal a renewed lease of life, but the show closed in November after less than two months (See News, 30 Oct 2003). The Whitehall has been dark ever since.

At today’s press event, held on the building site, head of ATG Howard Panter shared the company’s aspirations for Trafalgar Studios. “We hope that they will inject a new urgency, energy and excitement into the West End scene,” he said.

- by Terri Paddock