The new Leicester Square Theatre, formerly The Venue, situated in the basement of a Catholic church in Leicester Place, was unveiled last night (1 September 2008) at a launch attended by journalists and industry guests.

After a £600,000, three-month renovation, the new multi-purpose complex now houses a 395-seat main stage and a permanent 90-seat studio, called The Basement, in addition to a digital screening facility, new seating, bars (including two, with 2am late licenses, in the main auditorium) and air-conditioning and expanded dressing rooms and backstage areas.

The new management, led by artistic director Martin Witts and including several of his nephews and other family members, has secured a 30-year lease from their landlords, the church upstairs, with 8% of box office profits going towards the church’s refugee centre and a children’s hospice in Kent. Witts said the length of lease and trustworthy landlords would allow the new Leicester Square Theatre to thrive and survive over the long term.

“It’s very hard in London to find landlords who let you develop an effective business,” Witts lamented. With the frequent change of ownership of most West End real estate, he said, it’s usually a case of “seven years good, seven years bad”, including amongst the “bad” the owners of the now dark Arts Theatre, which Witts previously ran and now fears may never reopen in any theatrical form (See News, 24 Jul 2008).

At last night’s launch, Witts also announced further details of Leicester Square’s opening season. Between stints of Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress - which has its press performance on Thursday (4 September, previews from 29 August) and continues until 18 September, and then returns from 2 December to 29 January 2009 – The Big Joke will run through to 2 November.

Billed as London’s biggest comedy festival, it will feature up to six shows a day from a line-up of comedians including American stars Roseanne Barr (pictured) and Scott Capurro, Reginald D Hunter, Russell Howard, Topping & Butch, Doug Stanhope and Australian Jim Jeffries. The Big Joke is produced by Martin Witts for Leicester Square Productions and Mick Perrin.

Further ahead in the season, Miss Polly Rae and the Hurly Burly Girlys will bring their burlesque cult hit, The Hurly Burly Show, to the venue for three late nights only from 6 to 8 November 2008; and Paul Keating (Whatsonstage.com Award nominated for Little Shop of Horrors will star in a new outing for Matthew Todd’s 2006 gay sex comedy Blowing Whistles from 23 October to 29 November 2008. On the eve of Gay Pride, Jamie and Nigel celebrate their ten-year anniversary. Pete Nettell directs.

As previously announced (See News, 28 Aug 2008), the new season also features the return of the one-man comedy Alex, starring Robert Bathurst as the Daily Telegraph comic strip character come to life. The multi-media stage adaptation is at Leicester Square from 27 November to 20 December 2008 (previews from 25 November).

- by Terri Paddock