The publicity for the St James Theatre, which has opened on the site of the former Westminster Theatre near Victoria, bills it as “the first newly built theatre in central London for 30 years”, but that is to forget about Soho Theatre which opened in 2000. But whereas Soho was a lottery-funded project and the theatre itself is subsidised by the arts council, the building of the St James has been entirely funded by private investment and will operate commercially.
Joshua Miles (Eddie) and Anthony Andrews (Oscar) in Bully Boy at St James Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
It has opened with two spaces, with a main house of 312 seats that, with its steeply raked, vertigo-inducing rows, both resembles and occupies a half way point between Trafalgar Studios 1 and Soho Theatre in terms of capacity. The front of house areas, on two levels with an upper level accessed by a glistening curved staircase that make it look like a modish restaurant, have a very corporate/conference centre feeling (which the venue will no doubt double up as, or could be in danger of becoming if the theatre doesn’t work out).
Of course I naturally want to welcome any new theatre to the neighbourhood, especially after the fraught history of this site that was once going to provide a permanent home for Talawa Theatre Company. But I am also immediately wary about an inaugural programme that sees premium pricing for its opening two shows top out at £40 and £55 respectively, with regular top prices of £30 and £45. When its nearest comparable theatres, the Donmar and Almeida, have top prices in the £32 range, they’re far exceeding it.
The opening production, meanwhile, is a modest two-hander that’s hard to justify the high price tag for. Not that it’s slight - far from it. Sandi Toksvig, the likably crisp and witty broadcaster, has commendably gone against expectation with a gritty story that charts the push and pull and back stories of a military veteran of the Falklands War, now disabled in a wheelchair, who is sent on a mission to interrogate a 20-year-old soldier accused of a child civilian killing in the Middle East.
First produced at Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre last year, and subsequently revived with the same two actors, Anthony Andrews and Joshua Miles, at Northampton in August, it is a wordy, worthy piece with its heart in the right place as it deals with the stresses that young men face in the military occupation of places far from home. There’s fact and atmosphere, but it lacks forward momentum in its episodic arrangement of endless scenes that suggest a screenplay in development more than a play.
Andrews, confined to a wheelchair, blusters too much to make up in words what he lacks in physical movement. Miles, on the other hand, owes his agility, no doubt, to the military fitness training that is credited in the programme.