The historic New Players Theatre, located underneath the arches at London’s Charing Cross Station, is reinventing itself as a major Off-West End venue offering an eclectic year-round programme of work.

The 275-seat venue, now under new management, launches its first autumn/winter season with The Pretender Agenda, a new play by Christopher Manoe starring former Blue boyband star Lee Ryan, which it is co-producing with talent collective INC (See News, 16 Jul 2008). Further co-productions, and eventually full in-house productions, are planned for 2009 and beyond.

In the meantime, the New Players is programmed through to the end of this year. The Pretender Agenda runs from 28 August to 27 September 2008 (previews from 26 August). It’s followed by the Actors Company’s annual repertory, performed by graduates of the London Centre for Theatre Studies, which this year will see John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me and Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba presented in rep from 2 October to 1 November.

The autumn/winter season concludes, from 4 November to 20 December 2008, with Burlesque-Esque, a new cabaret offering from the Kitten Club. The “frisky felines” present an evening of song, dance, comedy, magic and fire-eating, with a series of special guest hosts including Richard O\'Brien, Arthur Smith and Scott Capurro.

Speaking to Whatsonstage.com, theatre general manager Holly Burford explained that, in terms of programming, “we’re trying to keep the theatre as a variety house, with a mix of straight plays, musicals, gala showcases and cabaret. We’re getting a lot of interest from producers who see us as a kind of sounding board. Maybe they don’t have the finance together for a major West End theatre, but they can do a solid, high-quality, six- to eight-week run with us and, because of our location, attract the same kind of attention.”

With an adjacent piano bar and restaurant, which is already a popular late night hangout, Burford hopes that the New Players will become a venue that theatre companies and the public will want to return to frequently because of what if offers both on and off the stage. There are also plans to launch free lunchtime performances in the restaurant where theatre makers can try out new work. If successful, the venue will apply for public funding to extend the scheme.

The New Players still boasts original features from the Victorian music hall dating back to 1865. In the early 20th century, the auditorium was turned into a cinema and then a storage facility for the Army. After the Second World War, the Players Theatre, with its Late Joys fortnightly programme of traditional music hall entertainment, moved in and, during its 1950s heyday, attracted top performers like Hattie Jacques, Bill Owen, Ian Carmichael and Clive Dunn. But after running into financial difficulties, the Players shut in 2002 (See News, 28 Mar 2002).

Since then, the renamed New Players has had more sporadic success, and long periods of darkness. In 2004, it was taken over by Off West End Theatres, which aimed to programme it collectively with the New End Theatre in Hampstead and the Shaw Theatre in Euston Road. The New Players is now being run by Pure Management, which had previously run the bar and restaurant during Off West End Theatres’ tenure and has now taken over the auditorium as well.

- by Terri Paddock