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County Hall Opens Doors for Three New Theatres

By • West End
London’s famous County Hall - the six-storey, Grade II-listed building situated on the South Bank next to the London Eye and across from Houses of Parliament - may soon become home to the capital’s newest Off-West End theatre complex.

Entertainment company Weird and Wonderful have been given the go-ahead for the creation of three new performance spaces on site. The company, which already runs the “Movieum” exhibition in the former home of the Saatchi Gallery at County Hall, plans to stage productions in the old debating chamber (pictured) and on the outdoor terrace, adding a black-box studio later in the year.

Mark Marlowe and Marcus Campbell Sinclair, joint directors of the project, told Whatsonstage.com that they want to create a venue that “will bridge the gap between the West End and the London Fringe”. Marlowe, currently artistic director of the Wheelhouse Theatre Company, said: “We have been given a great opportunity to create a brand new cultural centre, in the vein of the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) and the Menier Chocolate Factory.” He admitted that there were inevitable layers of “red tape” that accompany working in a listed building, but that productions might be seen as early as next month.

The main theatre will be housed in the former debating chamber, a space that Sinclair describes as having “inherent theatrical qualities”. With a seating capacity of 200, the venue has been used for occasional cinema screenings and corporate functions, which will continue in tandem with theatre projects.

After the much-publicised 2005 eviction of the Saatchi Gallery by Shirayama Shokusan, the Japanese company that owns County Hall, Marlowe and Sinclair are fully aware of the need to tread carefully. However, they are keen to emphasise that the project, which is named the Greater London Theatre in a nod to previous building tenants, the now-defunct Greater London Council, has been given the “full backing” of their landlords.

Weird and Wonderful, the company behind Greater London Theatre, have a 25-year lease on the council chamber and surrounding rooms. Although the building and its internal structures are listed, recent trial productions in the chamber (including a staging of Hamlet by the Courtyard Theatre Company) have been declared a success. Outdoor shows will be staged on the amphitheatre-like terrace which overlooks the Thames – a space Sinclair describes as “the best balcony in London”. Negotiations with the neighbouring Marriott hotel are still in progress, but it’s hoped the first outdoor productions will commence this summer.

Originally opened in 1922 after 11 years’ construction, County Hall was home of the Greater London Council (GLC) for 64 years until the council, led by now-mayor Ken Livingstone, clashed with the Conservative Government in the early 1980s. During this time, the GLC often used County’s Hall’s proximity to the Houses of Parliament to display anti-government slogans on the building’s face. Upon a mandate by prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the GLC was abolished in 1986. In the 1990s, the building was sold to private investors. It is now home to a number of offices, restaurants, two hotels and numerous tourist attractions, including the London Aquarium and the Dali Museum.

- by Theo Bosanquet


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