When @sohoplace opens later this week with the feel-good Marvellous – a joyous show, telling the story of Neil Baldwin, a man written off by everyone who went on to have a glorious, exceptional life – it marks the arrival of the first purpose-built West End theatre in over 50 years. It is very conveniently situated right by Tottenham Court Road tube.
It would be easy to say that in these straitened times the last thing we probably need is a new theatre. After all, long before the pandemic hit, many theatre buildings across the country were facing a tough time. Even keeping a building open and the toilets flushing can be a significant outlay. One of the difficulties faced by the Arts Council, particularly at a time when it's being pressed by government to move funding out of London, is that the right buildings are not always in the right parts of the country.
In the West End many buildings are crumbling: the seats are uncomfortable; the toilet facilities frustrating for customers; foyers and bar spaces cramped and unwelcoming. Lots of modern theatre-makers want to make shows in smaller studio spaces or found spaces. Pieces such as Punchdrunk’s Burnt City are the crowd-pleasers of our own age, just a good melodrama or a Shaw play were in earlier eras.
The company from Marvellous. Photo by Andrew Billington.
But if buildings can sometimes be burdens, they can also be beacons. Almost every regular theatregoer develops an attachment to particular spaces, sometimes even particular seats. If you regularly go to the same theatre —whether on the fringe or in the West End – your trip is haunted by the tumbling memories of the previous shows that you’ve seen in the same place. I can never go to a theatre without thinking about who sat in the seat I’m sitting in last night and speculating about who will sit in it tomorrow. As theatregoers there is something comforting about seeing ourselves as part of a continuum stretching backward and forward in time.
So, it feels good to welcome @sohoplace, not least because the arrival of a 600 seater flexible auditorium bridges the gap for theatremakers between studio spaces and the Edwardian and Victorian West End barns that were built for the theatre culture of a bygone times, and are so unsuitable for so much contemporary theatre. Marvellous—made at the in-the-round Old Vic in Newcastle Under Lyme—simply wouldn’t be seen in the West End without the flexibility of @sohoplace.
Other theatres, from the Orange Tree in Richmond to the Royal Exchange in Manchester and the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough, may well benefit from transferring their work to this new space, although Nica Burns, the owner of Nimax Theatres who is behind the new venue, says that the theatre will be producing its own work. Both Josie Rourke and Dominic Cooke are lined up to make shows for the theatre, which boasts its own rehearsal space. That is a tempting prospect.
So too is a theatre which comes with considerable consultation with contemporary theatre makers over the design to ensure it is fit for purpose, and which promises that every seat has excellent leg-room and sight-lines.
A look inside @sohoplace. Photo by Craig Sugden.
One of the bug bears for many West End theatregoers is that they are expected to pay top whack for a night out that happens in uncomfortable, sometimes dispiriting surroundings. The play may be the thing, but the shine can come off even a great production if the overall experience is lacking. There is a reason why those who run theatres have really upped their game in terms of front of house customer service, particularly at a time when a West End theatre trip for many falls into the luxury category.
As Nick Hytner observes in his book Balancing Acts about his time at the National Theatre, “packing them in makes you responsible for what happens to them before and after the show, so I learned to be as happy to hear about interval activity in the women’s toilets as I was to hear about the play.” The user-friendly design at The Bridge shows is something he learned from that.
But it’s not just about the audience. It is also about the art. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen a terrific piece of theatre in a smaller venue in another part of the country and then been disappointed when it deservedly transfers to the West End, because it suddenly feels as if I am watching it from afar and all sense of intimacy and immediacy is lost. If @sohoplace can bridge that gap and is able to do it on a commercial footing, it really will be a marvellous thing and a very welcome addition to the West End.
Cover image by Tim Soar & AHMM