A new theatre is opening in Soho this week, the brainchild of Fawn James, granddaughter of Paul Raymond, and a dream realised by architects Soda in collaboration with artistic director Rachel Edwards. Tom Wicker reports
The circular auditorium of the new Boulevard Theatre, which opened today in London’s Soho, is beautiful in its art deco stylings and a dynamic space. Literally. Both the stalls and -balcony levels move. They can revolve 360 degrees, resulting in eight different staging configurations. The same technical wizardry can create raked seating.
And this is not flashiness for its own stake. With seating capacity of just 165, space is at a premium and versatility is essential. Each configuration will enable something different.
The auditorium can host a late-night cabaret line-up, as well as theatre, and conferences during the day. “It’s a really hardworking piece of kit,” says Russell Potter, director of Soda, the architecture studio responsible for designing the Boulevard Theatre as part of the wider redevelopment of the historic Walker’s Court. Theatre consultancy CharcoalBlue designed the mechanism powering the auditorium.
Soho Estates’ decision to build a theatre was a personal one. Fawn James, director of the property empire, is the granddaughter of Paul Raymond, dubbed the ‘King of Soho’ who founded the group and ran revues and venues in the area from the 1950s onwards – including the first Boulevard, originally set up as a sister venue to the Raymond Revuebar. This new theatre, underwritten by Soho Estates without public subsidy, is on the site of its namesake.
Initially, however, a theatre wasn’t planned for Walker’s Court, says Potter, who began working on the mixed-use retail, residential and entertainment project in 2011. “It was about two to three years in that Fawn began to talk about reinventing the Boulevard,” he says. It felt apt. “She had always had the desire to do a theatre of some sort in London, and there was still time to see how it could fit here. This is a very real dream we’re helping to realise.” It soon became clear that a complete redesign from the original would be needed to make any new venue commercially viable. “From what we could tell, the first Boulevard was pretty much a rectangle of about 200 seats, rammed in along straight benches, with no rake,” says Potter. Soda began by drawing up a version of the theatre based on the available space at the time. It evolved from there.
The final design grew up and out from Boulevard’s original space, in what is now the venue’s art deco-inspired bar and restaurant. Soda carved out more room in the packed Walker’s Court through external walls that curve outwards. “And the size of the auditorium, which is perfectly circular in form, oversails the original building line,” adds Potter.
‘The brief was to make it the most flexible space possible’ – Russell Potter, director of Soda architecture studio
But every theatre, however architecturally and technologically inventive, still needs an artistic director to programme it – which is where Rachel Edwards came in. In 2015, she was producing Tooting Arts Club’s immersive version of Sweeney Todd on Shaftesbury Avenue. She invited Fawn James to see the show because she was interested in doing more site-specific work in Soho.
“We hit it off and she kindly let me use the old Central St Martins building to do Barrie Keeffe’s Barbarians in,” Edwards says. She and James later began talking about Soho Estates’ plans to resurrect the Boulevard. “Fawn initially invited me on board as a consulting producer. I did a feasibility study, which segued into my being her person to work with the design team, then segued into being artistic director.”
Many people feel deeply protective about Soho’s cultural heritage. Edwards, who describes the area as “a microcosm of London”, and the design team were aware of this. “We’ve worked closely with the residents throughout the process,” she says. And change, she adds, is a defining characteristic of Soho. “It’s everything: it’s creative, international, provocative.” She wants Boulevard’s output to be similarly diverse.
When Edwards came on board, “it was more to do with the bar and restaurant, where that was going to live,” she says. “The design of the auditorium was largely done. I just suggested a couple more configurations we could fit into the space. It was about having some creatives in the room, where there hadn’t been until that point.”
Potter agrees. “The original brief was just to make this the most flexible space possible,” he says. “We had no idea what was going to be put in there. So, when Rachel became involved and said: ‘You might want to put this type of show in’, that helped us to home in on what the space needed to do, from end-on staging to cabaret mode or in-the-round.”
From the capacity of the bar and restaurant, which is available for use by anyone from 8am, to how to fit the staircase into the venue’s ‘envelope’, it’s been about responding creatively to the “constraints of such a tiny site,” says Potter.
“All the nooks and crannies are break-out spaces where people can take their drinks. The stalls bar is another way to disperse people throughout the building.” This attention to detail extends to the number of toilets. Edwards says, as a regular theatregoer, she had “become obsessed” with the subject. When she saw Hamilton in New York, queues backed into the auditorium. “We’ve spent months going: ‘Shall we put one more female toilet in? And rightly so,” says Potter. “So, there are plenty.” People will also be “queuing in a nice space with mirrors and lights”.
This has been a project of firsts for Potter and Edwards. While Soda had worked on theatre restorations before, this was their first new-build commission. For Edwards, the Boulevard is her transition from a producing role to that of artistic director, and from site-specific work to running a building.
‘The area is a microcosm of London. We’ve worked closely with the residents throughout the process’ – Rachel Edwards, artistic director of the Boulevard Theatre
It’s a big change, and one that she welcomes. “With site-specific work, it can be difficult to programme ahead, because buildings change hands very quickly. You can’t say: ‘We’ll be doing this next spring,’ because that building might have been sold on or become a block of flats,” she says. “To be honest, that wasn’t as enjoyable as it had been.”
Edwards was enticed by the “freedom and certainty” of being able to programme one space over time. “You’re almost using a different part of your brain,” she says. However, while she’s looking forward to exploring the auditorium’s differing configurations, creatively, she’s also conscious of the low seat count. “There are challenges in terms of cast sizes and the economics of the building.”
The new Boulevard may be bigger than the old one, but it will still be one of the smallest commercial producing houses in London. “We’re not receiving work,” says Edwards. “Soho Estates is under no illusions. They’re not trying to make their money back, but they are trying to make sure that the building washes its face as a whole.” As well as the restaurant and conference space hire, “we have a full programme”.
There’s a late-night line-up of cabaret, comedy and music from Wednesday to Saturday and a Sunday programme. On the theatre side, the Boulevard’s first production is the London premiere of David Malloy’s song cycle Ghost Quartet. “There’s something naturally celebratory about music in a space,” says Edwards. “And the acoustic in the auditorium is fantastic.”
Future work will include a revival of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect and shows directed by Kathy Burke and Yaël Farber. “It’s really about stories and how we tell them,” Edwards says, clearly relishing the learning curve. “The space is going to tell us a lot about what works well.”
Ghost Quartet runs at the Boulevard Theatre, London, until January 4, 2020. Full details: boulevardtheatre.co.uk