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Introducing the Boulevard Theatre

Introducing the Boulevard Theatre

Introducing the Boulevard Theatre cover photo on Stagedoor
London is enjoying a new theatre boom.

The Turbine has opened by Battersea Power Station, there are Troubadours in White City and Wembley, work has started on the new Nimax Theatre in Charing Cross Road, and Nicholas Hytner and his producing partner Nick Starr, who have found success with their Bridge Theatre, plan to open a Bridge 2 at King’s Cross in 2021.

But none of these new or proposed theatres are likely to be quite as delightful as The Boulevard, the 160 seater theatre-come-bar and restaurant that has opened in the heart of Soho. Founded by Fawn James on the site where her grandfather, Paul Raymond the "King of Soho", opened the space that became home to the legendary Comic Strip. It is very much a passion project.

Rachel Edwards and Fawn James during the Boulevard's construction

The Boulevard is a grown-up space in every way, civilised, classy and discreetly sexy. It’s a place you might choose to go for a drink even if you weren’t going to the theatre. But its undoubted treasure is the theatre itself. London’s most flexible space (it can be configured end on, in the round and on the traverse), it is also one of the most comfortable and most intimate. It feels like a delicious secret. Maybe too much of a secret for its own good just at the moment, despite glowing the reviews for its first production. Dave Malloy’s haunting chamber musical Ghost Quartet fitted the place like a silken glove.

Ghost Quartet by Dave Malloy. Photo by Marc Brenner.

But then its artistic director, Rachel Edwards, likes a challenge. She believes that sometimes operating within constraints allows for greater creativity.

“I’ve always liked having something to push against,” she says. Edwards was the founder of Tooting Arts Club, the South West London outfit designed to fill a gap in local arts provision, which created several site-specific productions, including a version of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd which was originally performed to an audience of 32 in a Selkirk Road pie and mash shop and transferred in a pop-up version to both the West End and to Broadway.

“This is a very different challenge”, admits Edwards when we meet in the Soho Estates offices on Wardour Street. “With a 160-seater theatre you have always got to think about the commercial viability of what you are doing, but it's also about keeping the art in the forefront of everything. One of the things I’m doing at the Boulevard is looking for the sweet spot where commercial viability and artistic integrity meet.”

Her canniness in doing that is evident from the fact that when her first season was announced some theatre commentators expressed delighted surprise at the unexpectedly inspiring titles and the sheer clout of the directors Edwards had attracted to work in the yet untested space. The second production opens this month and it's the London premiere of The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy (who wrote All The Pretty Horses and The Road), directed by Olivier Award winner Terry Johnson.

Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton in The Sunset Limited. Photo by Helen Murray.

In March this year Anthony Neilson is at the helm for the first London revival of Lucy Prebble’s gripping, heart-breaking play about love and neuroscience, The Effect. Then the superb South African director, Yaël Farber, who is used to commanding huge international stages, takes on Athol Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye, and later in the year Kathy Burke directs The Cavalcaders, Billy Roche’s ruddy gorgeous play about a small Irish town barbershop quartet.

“I enjoyed the fact that people were surprised,” says Edwards, who adds modestly, “my profile is small. Apart from Sweeney, lots of people don’t know who I am or what I’ve done, so when I took on this job I realised that I had to be strategic, and that meant trying to match my wildly eclectic taste with directors. The season is definitely director driven, the aim is match great texts with great creative teams.”

Edwards was undoubtedly helped by the fact that, even as she showed potential collaborators around when the Boulevard was still a building site, they responded to the theatre’s intimacy.

“Lots of directors feel that after a certain point in their careers they lack the opportunity to work in really intimate spaces. The Boulevard is exactly that - and right in central London in the heart of Soho. Directors immediately realised that it is a beautiful space for genuinely intimate storytelling.”

But it is no means easy to set up a new London theatre from a standing start. The failure of the first show, Peter Pan, at the Troubadour in White City is evidence of the difficulty of attracting audiences to new venues. When Hytner and Starr moved down river from the National to set-up the Bridge they had a far easier task because they were already an established brand that people trusted from their time at the National.

The Boulevard's dining and bar space

Edwards and James face a far more daunting task in putting the Boulevard on the map and gradually building an audience and a mailing list, not just for the theatres main slot shows but also its late night programme of jazz, comedy and cabaret.

“I was really proud of Ghost Quartet, but one of the things we discovered is that great reviews don’t translate into great sales, particularly if you don’t yet have the database to reach people and tell them that you are there and what you are doing.”

Finding that audience won’t happen over-night. The test will be whether Edwards holds her artistic nerve - and whether Soho Estates maintains its support. An unsubsidised theatre with a small number of seats is always going to be a tricky commercial proposition. But if they can and do, then the Boulevard may well turn out to be the real pearl in London’s theatrical crown jewels, and one that becomes as essential as our most-loved theatres.

The Sunset Limited runs at the Boulevard Theatre, 16 Jan - 14 Mar. Tickets are available through Stagedoor and you can save £5 by using promo code BOULEVARD at checkout on the app.

The Effect runs at the Boulevard Theatre, 19 Mar - 30 May.

Hello and Goodbye runs at the Boulevard Theatre, 4 Jun - 25 Jul. On sale 29 January.

The Cavalcaders runs at the Boulevard Theatre, 16 Sep - 21 Nov. On sale 29 January.

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Written by

Lyn Gardner

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