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Rocking the Roundhouse

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The Round House became the Roundhouse after the extensive renovations and re-opening five years ago. Although the dear old former railway shed has become an unofficial home of modern circus, rock concerts and the Royal Shakespeare Company, it still struggles to re-establish its artistic identity.

This is no fault of the energetic chief executive Marcus Davey, who has announced the venue's participation in a new initiative, "360 degrees,"  an international network of round artistic venues for whom Robert Lepage is creating a large four-part epic, Cartes -- the structure and characters will take their inspiration from a deck of playing cards; the first part will be seen here in a year's time.

Meanwhile, Davey continues the "unseen" social work that began when the toy manufacturer and philanthropist Torquil Norman bought the place from Camden in 1996 for £6.5m as an extension of his charity for children and young people: over 17,000 11-25 year-olds have, since then, worked on creative and artistic projects, and that work, too, will seek an international dimension as Davey launches a global youth arts forum, "Call to Create," this May, with a first biennial festival slated for 2014.   

The Roundhouse no longer houses the Electric Proms, alas, but there's a contemporary classical season, "Reverb," next month, followed by CircusFest at the end of March and the World Shakespeare Festival -- with the RSC's "What Country Friends Is This?" season (The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest) -- in May and June.

This is all good news, and does seem to mark a decisive shift towards solving the Roundhouse's main profile problem: that its traditional access to the international avant garde in theatre and even dance has been totally plundered by the Barbican and Sadler's Wells.

And in restoring the emphasis on the "roundness" of the Roundhouse, perhaps the place will at last reawaken the magical impact of great circular and promenade events in the past such as Ariane Mnouchkine's 1789, Jerome Savary's Grand Magic Circus and that wild bunch of Argentinian aerial head-bangers, De La Guarda. La Soiree is all very well, but it's only a ragbag cabaret, not a serious theatrical blast.

The other round theatres in the network are in Chalons-en-Champagne, Stockholm, Madrid, Copenhagen and Zagreb, with affiliate venues in Montreal, Amiens, Milan and Amsterdam. These buildings (apart from the Piccolo in Milan) are either purpose-built circus venues or, more often, old industrial sites such as restored gasometers, water works or, indeed, railway sheds.

The Roundhouse is my local, and I feel very attached to it. I used to live in a street of small cottage houses built for the railway workers in the mid 19th century, shortly after the shed was constructed in 1846. Within ten years, the engines became too large to be accommodated in the bays and repair pits that were made between the (still standing) two dozen elegant iron pillars.

So the place became a goods shed, then a liquor store, leased to W & A Gilbey (of Gilbey's Gin fame) in 1869 -- an exemplary instance, perhaps, of the interval drinks being ordered well in advance of the performance.

The place declined until the Round House Trust obtained the freehold from British Rail in 1967 and championed the application for occupancy by Centre 42, a cultural initiative by Arnold Wesker involving the Trades Unions (the idea had been floated at the TUC conference of 1961 as item 42 on the agenda).

The brave new world of working class participation never really happened, which is why the social programme today is such a splendid echo of Wesker's aims and ideology. The rock concerts started in 1968 (the Doors gave their only concert in Britain here) and, under George Hoskins, an economist chum of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, the venue soon became the grooviest gig in town.

At the tail end of that era, Thelma Holt pursued a valiant policy of international and visiting regional work (Vanessa Redgrave in The Lady from the Sea and Helen Mirren in The Duchess of Malfi were highlights) before the place shut down again in 1983. A Black Arts Centre came and went, Richard Rodgers designed a new roof, another initiative in the unlikely alliance of Brian Rix and Melvyn Bragg failed to take off... and then came Torquil Norman astride a white steed.

It's an amazing history, and in opening a new chapter with Robert Lepage and his European associates, Marcus Davey (made OBE in the New Year's honours list; he stroked his shiny bald pate yesterday lunchtime and delightedly accepted the alternative soubriquet of One Boiled Egg) is honouring that heritage and re-defining it in a new era.

Suits me, squire: all I have to do is roll down Haverstock Hill and join in the fun.


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