Leicester’s new £60 million Curve theatre is a beautiful piece of urban design, but with no backstage, will audiences want to see behind the mystery of theatre, asks Alistair Smith
Leicester’s Curve hasn’t fully opened yet and it’s already had its fair share of detractors.
The cost of the project to replace the city’s Haymarket Theatre – an un-charming and awkward playhouse set within a seventies shopping centre – skyrocketed from initial estimates of around £25 million to beyond the £60 million mark.
Its architect, New York-based Rafael Vinoly, managed to alienate many within the UK theatre design community by failing to consult the Association of British Theatre Technician’s Theatre Planning Committee before work commenced.
And, if that weren’t bad enough, his much-vaunted plans to create an ‘inside out’ venue have been ridiculed by many within the industry – most notably theatre consultant Richard Pilbrow, who branded the concept “foolish” and “impractical”.
Curve is now finished and, next month, after a gala opening and a few try-outs, will stage its first full show. But, is it any good?
First things first. As a piece of urban design, it is stunning. Beautiful, even.
The thing that strikes you as you approach the venue – located in the city’s St George’s area, which is being rebranded and redeveloped as its ‘cultural quarter’ – is how well it slots into the city’s existing hotchpotch of buildings.
Opposite the venue is the thirties Athena cinema, a church and a dusty-looking venue called the G-Spot, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Behind it, is the Leicester Secular Society, to the left (as you face the entrance) a modern car park and to the right some pretty period buildings, which are being converted into boutique hotels and restaurants. Curve is bigger, brasher and more imposing than any of these, but thanks to the huge amount of glass incorporated in the design, also serves as a window on to them and the wider city.
Inside, the foyers are sleek and minimalist and the whole space feels almost cathedral-like, thanks to the building’s towering height.
Unlike a church, though, it is airy, bright and welcoming. There are also what appear to be three giant fruit pastilles fused together at the centre of it – one purple, one black, one red.
These are, respectively, the large auditorium (seating 750), the shared central stage (16 metres squared) and the small auditorium (seating 330).
This is where the controversy starts. You see, there is no backstage.
The concept behind Curve is that nothing is hidden. So, actors will enter the stage from their dressing rooms (not on show), to the wardrobe (on show) and through the foyers (very much on show). Likewise, for techies, the get-in will happen through the public spaces.
The two sides of the stage can be hydraulically lifted up to bring in scenery, but also to allow people milling around during the daytime to watch theatre technicians at work.
The theatre’s paint frame is also open to the public, who can watch craftsmen at work through its giant glass frontage. Even the offices, while secure, are open-plan and within the same space as the foyers.
The two auditoriums and the central stage are completely flexible and can be arranged in an almost limitless number of ways (well, about 16). You can have the large auditorium use the central stage, while the smaller auditorium is used as a black box studio, you can have the two auditoriums both used for seating, while they share the central space.
You can even have three separate spaces, all hosting different shows concurrently – the larger auditorium using the small front stage, while the main body of the stage is turned into a stand-alone traverse space and the smaller auditorium functions as a studio theatre.
There’s also the scope to use the public spaces for performance – as was indeed the case on the venue’s gala opening, when circus acts performed acrobatics in the foyers from the bridges which cross above the various walkways (pictured left).
On top of this, there are three (private) rehearsal rooms with sprung floors – two of very notable size.
The largest of the three is an exact replica of the main stage and is located directly above the lighting grid, which is 19 metres above the stage.
Underneath the stage, the orchestra pit can be raised and lowered on hydraulics, allowing it to double as a lift, or extra seating. There’s also a plenum, which feeds the ventilation of the larger auditorium.
A second plenum is located in the floor to the circle, which explains (although perhaps doesn’t justify) why there is quite a significant divide between those seated upstairs and downstairs.
The question of whether all this will work – and therefore whether Curve itself will work – is principally twofold.
Firstly, there’s the philosophical question of whether audiences want to see behind the mystery of theatre and secondly, there’s the practical question of whether actors and technicians want audiences to see behind the mystery of theatre.
There’s also the separate pragmatic issue of how the venue’s public spaces will look after a few years of get-ins and dropped scenery and just how much of the venue’s subsidy it will have to spend on keeping this building looking up to scratch.
Ultimately, none of those questions can be answered now. But they are the issues – together with how well the artistic team uses the flexible spaces – which will define whether the theatre is a success or not.
The venue’s first major show, Simply Cinderella, runs from December 4. After that, we should have a better idea of how well this beautiful building will function as a working theatre.