Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr: ‘It must be time to look beyond the commercial West End’
After their highly successful tenure at the National Theatre, the ‘two Nicks’ are opening the 900-seat Bridge Theatre, a purpose-built venue by London’s Tower Bridge. They tell Nick Clark how looking east is giving them the freedom to programme a blend of old and new work beyond the strictures of Theatreland’s traditional buildings
When Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr started looking at homes for their new theatre company they were, inevitably, drawn to the West End.
Theatre’s powerhouse double act – known variously in the industry as ‘Nick and Nick’ or ‘the two Nicks’ – were about to leave a golden period running the National Theatre and already knew what was next. They just didn’t know where.
“The restriction of West End houses means you are always going to have to bend to the discipline that [architect] Frank Matcham imposes on you,” Hytner says. “Those theatres are great, they’re wonderful. Some are masterpieces, but right from the beginning we wanted more flexibility.”
The ‘eureka moment’ came when they turned to each other and asked: “Why does theatre have to happen in the West End?” Instead they looked east.
A spot nestled between Tower Bridge and City Hall, with a view of the Tower of London, was where their gaze finally alighted. Several years on, the Bridge Theatre, the first large-scale commercial theatre in London to be built outside the West End, opens tonight with Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s play Young Marx, starring Rory Kinnear.
At our meeting ahead of the opening, do Hytner and Starr hope the move to SE1 will be a catalyst for more of the industry spreading east?
“Yes,” they say, in unison. Hytner continues: “It’s a long time since all the galleries were in the West End, now you don’t think twice about going to White Cube or Tate Modern – wherever the interesting stuff takes you. It’s the same with restaurants.”
Audiences may not associate the area with theatre, but a decade ago they would not have gone there for dinner, either. Hytner says: “They do now. The whole neighbourhood is completely different. It’s vibrant, full of different kinds of energy. It has blossomed.”
There has been a population shift in London, with more than half the city’s inhabitants living east of Tower Bridge, and the new theatre is a stone’s throw from the tube, train and bus hub at London Bridge station. Added to that, theatre attendance numbers in the capital have grown by 24% since the turn of century, according to the Society of London Theatre box-office figures.
“It’s bewildering that theatre has remained so umbilically attached to one little corner of London. We’re not saying the West End will be superseded, but it must be time to look elsewhere,” Hytner says. “We’re about to find out whether we are right. If the premise is incorrect, this whole thing will implode.”
Success at the National
The London Theatre Company was incorporated in June 2014 according to Companies House, two months before Starr left his post as the National’s executive director. Hytner, the theatre’s artistic director, departed the following April.
They left an impressive legacy at the organisation, with former chairman John Makinson saying they had led the theatre to “undreamed levels of creative and commercial success”. This included trebling the NT’s annual income to £117.7 million 12 years after they joined.
Among their triumphs was a sponsorship deal with Travelex that brought in cheap tickets and packed out the auditoriums. They masterminded broadcasting theatre into cinemas with NT Live, and sent blockbuster shows including War Horse, The History Boys, One Man, Two Guvnors and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time into the West End and beyond. Hytner left after the completion of the £80 million transformation project of its South Bank home – NT Future.
But the seed for the Nicks’ new venture had been planted three years earlier, when Starr suggested that their next project should be in the commercial theatre, not just as producers, but builders and owners as well.
Hytner says: “This all starts from us being theatre producers. We want to produce theatre. The best way of producing shows is to be in control of the places we produce in. The shows we want to produce are many and various. The people we want to work with work in many and various ways.”
They wanted to set up on a commercial basis with much of the ethos that comes from the non-profit sector. “The mad thing to do would be to shift into a whole different mindset,” says Starr, who had spent all of his career in subsidised theatre. Hytner has more commercial experience, having worked on the original London and New York productions of Miss Saigon, but says he feels the same way.
“We started imagining what it might be like to own a theatre in the West End,” Hytner says. There was one particular venue, he adds – though declines to name which – whose owners were interested in selling.
They did “quite a lot of work” on ideas to turn the venue into the home for their new venture with theatre architect Steve Tompkins, of Haworth Tompkins, with whom they had worked on the Temporary Theatre, the red timber-clad structure that sat in front of the National between 2013 and 2016.
“We’d still be quite keen,” Starr says of that initial venue they looked at and in a nod to potential expansion plans in future. “Although we would be even more radical about it,” Hytner agrees, before cautioning: “It would be unbelievably difficult and expensive.”
Looking beyond the West End
Hytner and Starr quickly realised that few other buildings were for sale in Theatreland and most were restricted by their listed status. Hytner says it took them “a little while to break with the conventional wisdom that commercial theatre had to happen in the West End”.
The former NT director adds: “Among the destinations I prefer for a night out, the West End is by no means near the top.”
So they turned from existing theatres and started looking at different styles of buildings to convert or construct within. “We had been to all sorts of bonkers places,” Hytner says. “Really bonkers,” Starr agrees, though they give no clue as to where they went.
If they were to look elsewhere, it had to be well served by public transport. They rejected an excellent site because the journey from the tube station was “probably the most unpleasant 15-minute walk” in London. “It was too big a risk,” Starr says. He adds with a wistful air that this riverside location – shrouded in secrecy – “will be brilliant in 20 years’ time”.
Hytner and Starr first looked at the Tower Bridge site just before Christmas 2014. “It is the most wonderful location,” Starr says. It has the added bonus of excellent transport links, being close to London Bridge station.
The solution came about through discussions with Starr’s friend Robert Wolstenholme, managing director of real estate investment and development business Trilogy Property. They had been on the board of London’s Bush Theatre together and Wolstenholme asked how much space they needed.
“There was a discipline,” Starr says. “Don’t take more than you need because you’re going to pay for it.” The Bridge has no rehearsal room or studio space.
Wolstenholme was involved with Berkeley Homes on the One Tower Bridge residential scheme. “We have much to be grateful to him for,” Starr says.
Built on the old Potters Field coach park, the development will create about 400 homes. Berkeley’s website is marketing the “five-star living experience by the banks of the Thames” of one, two and three-bedroom apartments at between £3.6 million and £6.2 million.
Part of the condition that Southwark Council approved the development was the inclusion of a non-specific cultural site. Hytner and Starr pitched for the 6,873 sq metre facility, beating several competitors to win it. The Bridge has been described as the latest jewel in the “cultural string of pearls” along the South Bank, which includes Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe, Tate Modern and – of course – the National Theatre.
With restaurants including the Ivy also taking up residency, Berkeley’s south-east managing director Harry Lewis has talked of his hopes the area will become the “Covent Garden of the South Bank”. The Bridge has its own high-end food offering, bringing in the restaurant St John to run its bar and cafe. As well as interval drinks, audiences can order warm interval madeleines.
London Theatre Company is paying a commercial rent and has a long lease on the space. Starr says: “We have 50 years, and at that point it is protected. If you wish to carry on, you negotiate it.” Hytner smiles wryly: “I think it probably won’t be us doing the negotiation.”
Nick Starr and Nick Hytner on…
… Rufus Norris’ reign at the National
Nicholas Hytner: Everything I’ve seen I’ve really liked. You win some you lose some, that has always been the case. The wins have been pretty spectacular.
… commercial theatre
Nick Starr: The balance of power has shifted so decisively towards the theatre owners, it has become harder for independent producers.
… West End producers
NH: A handful of West End producers are doing a really good job. It’s really tricky to get hold of a West End theatre, since every show is a different venture that has to be capitalised on its own merits.
… opening in east London
NS: It’s fortunate we’re opening in east London. if we were opening in the West End it would be a much bigger deal.
… onstage talent
NH: So many really good stage actors, through film and television, have become people the wider public want to see. The days when there are a handful of movie stars people would pay West End prices to see are long gone.
… commissioning work for the Bridge
NH: We’re commissioning this stuff because it excites us – not because we’re committed to observing a programme of innovation imposed from outside.
… theatre writers
NH: The really interesting thing about dramatists these days is that their careers are so varied. Most write for theatre, long-form television and movies.
Designing from scratch
Tompkins, who had recently won the Riba Stirling Prize for the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, had been trying to design the perfect auditorium with his colleague Roger Watts. It had not been specifically for the Tower Bridge space – in fact, Tompkins describes those early plans as an “intellectual R&D exercise”.
When Nick and Nick showed him the location, it was almost the perfect size for the auditorium they had been imagining in these concept drawings. “This is a site to die for, this found space,” Tompkins says. “It faces into a little pocket park that looks on to the river.”
When designing the auditorium, Tompkins says he and Watts thought about how the Young Vic was set up. “It’s a democratic, relatively square format that can do everything. It’s the space we’ve worked on that feels like it has the most capacity for transformation. It’s incredibly exciting,” Tompkins says. “But on the other hand too much flexibility can result in a space with no personality.”
At about 900 seats – the exact number will change with the configuration for every show – the Bridge is close to double the size of the Young Vic, but the designers wanted it to remain “connected and intimate”.
The architects looked at how theatres were moving away from deep Victorian and Edwardian tiers. “We looked at courtyard spaces and chamber opera houses where everybody is tapered around the walls in shallow galleries,” Tompkins says.
“There’s an electrical connection between the stage and the auditorium, and that’s often about what’s going on along the side walls. If there’s just concrete or technical paraphernalia, then as an actor you’re more likely to feel alienated from the audiences than if you’ve got faces pressed in.”
Taking the utopian plans they had been working on, Tompkins and Watts began to hone the design, looking at sight lines and building computer models.
“The Nicks weren’t interested in perfect equal sight lines, they wanted the sense of chemistry, all the things old theatres excelled at,” Tompkins says. “We tried to learn the lessons of old spaces, and others like the Young Vic. But we’ve made it a more vertical space to get the density.”
With specialist US manufacturer Tait, they developed a modular system in an aircraft hanger in Thetford, Norfolk, where they could mock up the auditorium, sit in the seats and tackle any potential issues ahead of their arrival on the South Bank.
The auditorium comes in 57 pieces, splitting into towers and seating galleries. It can be built in a factory and brought in on the back of a lorry. They are carried in on a monorail and a ‘Tonka truck’ fits it into place.
Tompkins talks with pride of the flexibility of the auditorium. “We can change formats without a lot of technology involved,” he says. The first three productions will be in order: end on, promenade and then thrust stage. “They will really take the auditorium through its paces,” the architect says.
Five years is the proper time to appraise whether the auditorium is working, Tompkins adds – for it to bed in, for practitioners to understand how it works and companies to get the measure of the space. “If I go back in five years and people are happy, that will be proof of concept – probably not before.”
All the money for the construction cost of £12 million, with fees on top, was raised up front. Hytner and Starr raised the money from a small group of investors on a venture-capital basis, as a start-up with growth potential.
They did not seek institutional investment, but from wealthy individuals with family offices. According to the latest statement at Companies House, from June, this includes Travelex boss Lloyd Dorfman and City grandees Robin Geffen and Clive Sterling.
The investors have committed for the long term. So the theatre is not working on investment on a show-by-show basis, and does not have to produce a return for each one. “This is about building a company that is viable in the long term,” Hytner says. “We’re not locked in a terrible cycle of every show being make or break.”
After Young Marx, starring Kinnear and Nancy Carroll, follows a new production of Julius Caesar in promenade with Ben Whishaw, David Morrissey and Michelle Fairley. Hytner is directing both. The third production, opening in April, is Nightfall, written by Barney Norris and directed by Laurie Sansom.
The idea is to put on “the best new stuff: with the odd classic thrown in,” Hytner says. “I really like directing them. That’s the self-indulgent bit.”
But do not call these three plays a season. The Bridge is doing away with the notion, in favour of talking about new productions when they are ready.
“I feel a bit guilty about this,” Hytner says. “Everyone has become much too hung up on these huge declarations. I feel that’s a millstone I’ve hung round everyone’s neck from my time at the National. Every time there’s an announcement of a year’s work it has to answer all sorts of externally imposed criteria – and if it doesn’t, the roof falls in. Instead of that, you should do what’s ready and interesting. So that’s what we’ll do.”
He adds: “It would be great to say Young Marx is a statement of intent. I hope it is. But it isn’t like kicking off your tenure at the National with Henry V.” Hytner will hope the Bridge’s debut receives the acclaim that his NT debut did in 2003, with Adrian Lester in the title role.
In November, they will put more shows on sale. “But we will never say – because it’s not our job anymore – ‘Here is the Bridge theatre’s account of the state of the nation’. We’ll do them when we’re ready.”
Among those future projects are a new play by Lucinda Coxon, a dark comedy by Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodge and a new play about JS Bach.
Hytner says: “When you can both entertain and offer considerable substance at the same time, it feels like your audience will be at its happiest. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”
The idea has been to commission new work “in the way new stuff was once commissioned for the West End”, Hytner says. “There has been a marked shift in the last few decades in the way even popular new stuff has been produced. Most of it started in the subsidised sector.”
He adds that creative innovation in spoken theatre has “largely been contracted out to the subsidised theatre”, though he credits the work of producers including Robert Fox, Matthew Byam Shaw and Sonia Friedman.
“It’s not either/or,” he adds. “The London theatre is working really well. It has bucked all kinds of trends. In no way are we looking to supplant any way of making it. We want to say, ‘This too.’ ”
The Bridge will offer cheap tickets, but will not bring in sponsorship in the style of the Travelex tickets at the National. “That is a zero-sum game,” Hytner says. “Public subsidy is shrinking and we’re obviously not going after that. But we’re not going after corporate or individual sponsorship either.”
Despite not having to make grand statements of intent on a year-by-year basis, Hytner says in one way he is not as free as when programming the National’s schedule.
“Well, 90% of the National’s repertoire we couldn’t dream of doing here. We have to be confident everything we do will land. I’m not free to programme, says, Our Class by Tadeusz Slobodzianek, which was one of my favourite things.”
Starr adds: “This is not the National by other means.”
There are familiar faces lined up from their tenure at the National on and off stage including Kinnear, Bean and Simon Russell Beale. Hytner also had a particularly fruitful relationship with Alan Bennett with work including The History Boys, People and Habit of Art. So will a new Bennett work be coming to the Bridge? “If Alan writes another play,” Hytner says with a smile, “I hope he would give it to me.”
Some observers have suggested the Bridge will lure audiences away from the National and Hytner’s successor Rufus Norris.
“There’s a form of theatre commentary that sees audiences as a steady state and any competition within it is zero-sum,” Starr says. “Actually it’s not steady state or zero-sum. What we do is not at the cost of someone else. The worst thing to happen to London would be if it were to become fossilised and locked down, with no room for new entrants. It’s an ecosystem.”
With the background of a divided country, uncertainty in politics and fears around government funding cuts, should theatre fear for its future? Very much the opposite, according to Hytner. “I think we’re in as good a place, as far as writing and acting are concerned, as I can remember in all the time I have worked in the theatre.”
He continues: “London appears to be surviving the surreal frivolity of our political leadership. Acting and writing are as strong as I’ve ever known them. But in 50 years of being aware of politics, I’ve never known such frivolous leadership.
“Funding cuts are much less of a threat than existential threats to the economy thanks to the likes of David Davis, Theresa May, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson,” Hytner adds. “It blows my mind.”
Katrina Gilroy, Technical producer
How long you have known Nick and Nick? Since they started at the National Theatre, some time around 2002, I think.
What’s your background? I trained in technical and stage management at LAMDA, and started in stage management. I was production manager at English Touring Theatre and Oxford Stage Company before the National Theatre, where I was production manager and then technical producer. I was also technical producer on the build of the NT’s Temporary Theatre.
Andrew Leveson, General manager
How long you have known Nick and Nick? We met in May 2015, when I was trying to explore ways to start out as a producer after several years practising as a lawyer in the City. What started as a short-term project researching ticketing, customer relations and branding developed over the course of a couple of years into my current role.
What’s your background? I spent several years after university as a director, mainly in opera, before retraining as a lawyer. I made the leap back to theatre in early 2015.
David Sabel, Director of creative development
How long have you known Nick and Nick? Since the summer of 2008, when I began what was meant to be a two-month project developing the idea of live broadcast into cinemas. It became NT Live.
What’s your background? I trained as an actor in Chicago and then at Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. I was director of broadcast at the National Theatre from 2008 to 2015, where I launched NT Live, produced four broadcast documentaries, the National Theatre’s 50th-anniversary gala and was executive producer on the feature film adaptation of London Road.
CV: Nicholas Hytner
Born: 1956, Manchester
Training: English National Opera, 1978-80; rep in Exeter and Leeds.
Landmark productions: His Dark Materials, National Theatre (2003), The History Boys, NT (2004), Othello, NT (2013)
CV: Nick Starr
Born: 1957, Swanley, Kent
Training: Half Moon Theatre, London
Landmark productions: Trafford Tanzi, Half Moon (1980), Richard II/Coriolanus, Almeida Gainsborough Studios (2000), Jerry Springer the Opera, Battersea Arts Centre (2001); National Theatre (2003), NT shows 2003-15
Young Marx runs at the Bridge Theatre until December 31