Kiln Theatre: Exclusive first look at transformed London theatre
Following a controversial name change, which saw the Tricycle become the Kiln in April, a bigger transformation is set to be unveiled. Holly Williams meets the team behind the refurbishment to make the venue more inclusive
Shortly after Indhu Rubasingham took over at the Tricycle theatre in Kilburn, she came into the building behind a man and a young child. They walked down the corridor that led to the auditorium and then turned around and walked straight back out. “I don’t know why, but to me it looked like they were curious but too intimidated,” she says.
Rubasingham hopes that will never happen in her theatre again. And it’s this desire to turn the north London venue into an open, outward-facing, welcoming space – serving its local community as well as providing world-class work – that has motored an ambitious £5.5 million refurbishment project. After two years dark, the Tricycle reopens this month, with a new, and contentious, identity as the Kiln – as well as a new look.
Rather than having to go down that corridor that turned those early visitors away, a glass-fronted cafe now opens right on to the high street, inviting for passers-by who might fancy a coffee as well as for those with tickets for a show.
Sales for the new season have already attracted many first-time visitors says Rubasingham, suggesting the rebranding is working. She sounds slightly manic as the project hurtles towards its September 5 opening date.
But there’s good news, too, for those already familiar with the space: sight lines have been sorted and seats are comfier. Rather than having several rows on either side of the auditorium, there will only be one on each side; more seats face front to a stage that has gone ‘widescreen’.
A total of 50 seats have been added, taking the capacity to 292 – and they are actually seats, with proper legroom, rather than the old padded benches. The new design is also much more flexible, and can be rearranged to allow in-the-round, traverse or cabaret-style set-ups.
Audiences are going to get a much better experience in terms of sight lines, performance, acoustics
Audience members used to feel as though they were sitting on top of one another, Kiln’s architect Greg Chapman, of Chapman Architects, says. Now, the theatre will “still have that buzzy feeling, but audiences are going to get a much better experience in terms of sight lines, performance, acoustics”.
Still, those working on the refurbishment were mindful of patrons’ affection for the Tricycle, for all its scruffiness and quirks. Built in 1925, it was originally a meeting hall for the Friendly Society of Foresters. It was converted in 1980 by Shirley Barrie and Ken Chubb, of the Wakefield Tricycle Company.
The Trike did look pretty 1980s – the distinguishing feature being bright red scaffolding that loudly bisected the space. “Designers would say to me, you feel you’re competing with the auditorium with the red scaffolding and the blue carpet,” Rubasingham says. That’s all gone – although the design features little nods to it, with patches of red polished concrete, and red seats.
“We worked very closely with the Kiln to make sure the materials were complementary and not distracting, but had a warmth to them,” says Chapman. “Lights gently come on at the intervals, you’ll see warm charcoal timber in the background. It’s quite subtle.”
There’s lots of wood throughout: the cafe and bar have timber floors and counters, topped with zinc. “It’s very much an interior that will gain its own patina in time,” he adds.
For the architects, delivering a technically modern theatre within an existent building was “a significant challenge”. And so they went back to go forward, stripping out the 1980s additions in order to expose the original building. “We’re revealing who we are,” says Rubasingham enthusiastically. “There are lovely features that you would never have seen before: detailed balustrades or architraves on the walls.” Taking up that blue carpet even revealed the building’s original tiles.
It’s not all about the look of it, of course, the space also needed to be much more hi-spec. Chapman Architects worked with theatre consultancy Charcoalblue to ensure designs served the practical needs of a working theatre as well as providing “a nice, trendy cafe”.
But state-of-the-art technology doesn’t come cheap – and Rubasingham at one point felt so despondent about escalating costs that she almost ditched one of the biggest changes: the lighting bridges on the theatre’s ceiling.
“We thought we were going to have to reduce the scheme and take out the lighting bridges. But then we thought: why are we spending all this money and time and not future-proofing this properly? It would need to be done at some point.” In the past, someone would strap on a safety harness and shimmy up a ladder to change the lights. The new system is “much safer, much faster, and more in keeping with contemporary theatres”, Rubasingham says.
So, will it all come under budget? “You know… yes, it will,” she says after a pause. “It’s hard to know right now because we’re in the middle of the storm of last-minute things and crises, but we’re on target.” Chapman adds warily: “The budget for this project, like every [publicly funded] arts project, has been incredibly challenging.” Kiln received £3.1 million from Arts Council England. “We’ve had to watch every penny,” he continues. “Every penny has been put to best possible use.”
Initial plans for a second space or modernised offices were quickly shelved; getting the auditorium up to scratch was the primary concern.
Well, that and the toilets. “They’re certainly much greater in number” – 11 in total plus four urinals – “and particular care was taken with the female loos, because they were dreadful,” says Chapman, to the relief of at least of half the audience.
Another thing that frustrated Rubasingham when she took over the artistic directorship was access. “We had this archaic disabled access system that was always breaking down, it was so arcane you couldn’t even repair it – they didn’t make those parts anymore. And as our mission statement was to say we’re open to all, it felt kind of embarrassing.” Now, steep ramps – non-compliant with modern access requirements – have been lowered throughout. The auditorium has a permanent space for a wheelchair, and can be reconfigured to provide up to eight spaces.
Of all the changes, it is not a physical one that has attracted the most attention so far. Changing the theatre’s name from the Tricycle to the Kiln prompted opposition, including more than 400 signatures on a petition to reverse the decision. Many saw the move as abandoning the Tricycle’s history and identity. But Rubasingham is sanguine about it. “A name is a name is a name. How do you bring audiences back, and bring in new audiences? [The rebranding] has actually done that, even with the controversy. When people see the building they will see how the history is being honoured.”
When will people get to see it – will it be done on time? The Stage’s visit to the space was pushed back repeatedly, which hardly bodes well. “Well it depends what you mean by ‘done on time’. There will always be snagging and things you’re finishing… Also you’ll know what needs to be changed when the audience are in.” Rubasingham laughs loudly, for a long time. “You know what, if we’re open in time it’ll be because there is a fantastic team in the theatre that is busting a gut.” And she can’t wait to throw open those doors. “People used to talk about the Tricycle as a hidden gem. For me, I don’t want to be hidden – I want to be a beacon on the high street.”