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Liverpool Everyman: another opening, but not just another theatre

Liverpool Everyman. Photo: Philip Vile
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Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre has been re-born, after 10 years of planning, 2 years of construction and a £27m budget (including buying an adjoining plot of land to allow the new build to incorporate an education/community space, a on-site rehearsal room and office space that allows the theatre staff to all work on the same site for the first time).

Visiting it last night for its opening night, and marvelling at the ability of a theatre to totally renew itself yet manage to feel as if it has always been here, I was struck by the tiniest of details that for me said it all. Like theatres up and down the land, they sell bagged sweets – a perennial source of annoyance when customers inevitably rustle them as the scoff them.

But at the Everyman last night, I saw that they sold them and provided a little paper bowl so customers could pour the sweets into them and enjoy their treats without disturbing anyone. The Mayor of Liverpool, seated across the aisle from me, thus happily worked his way through a bag of Minstrels without disturbing anyone.

It says it all about a venue where they’ve clearly thought about everything. And after being founded in a converted 19th century chapel and making do with the haphazard geometry and geography of a building that wasn’t designed as a theatre, they’ve now got it all – as well as preserving the features (and even fabric) that made the original theatre so distinctive. (The internal walls of the foyers are made from reclaimed bricks of the original Hope Hall).

That includes a similar thrust stage that wraps the audience around it on three sides, in just four or five rows downstairs with another two in an upstairs gallery, thus maintaining the theatre’s beautiful intimacy and rapport with its audience. During the theatre’s extensive consultation with its audiences and the city, it found that the other key ingredients that people wanted maintained were the neon Everyman logo outside the theatre (which isn’t neon anymore, but always lit), and the bistro.

That bistro was teaming last night, and the first and most obvious thing to say is that the building is already entirely populated and energised – and not just by curious theatregoers. The street level cafe is open daily from 8.30am to 11pm daily, and already a local hit. As the theatre’s artistic director Gemma Bodinetz and executive director Deborarh Aydon, who’ve both been here for 10 years now, proudly took a group of first night critics around their new building, it was plain that this was already a working building – in EV1, the theatre’s education and community space, groups of youngsters were hard at work devising a new show.

It’s a beautiful space inside and out. From the moment you approach it, it feels welcoming and inclusive, with moveable panels that feature portraits of 105 local men and women above that famous lit logo, putting the public not just centrestage but at the centre of the building itself. It may be sentimental, but it is also deeply symbolic: this is a theatre of and for its people.

But the most important part of any theatre is its auditorium, and here the theatre is a thrilling triumph. Not just that its warm, embracing intimacy, but also for its comfort: someone again has thought about the hours we have to spend in its seats, and there’s both support and legroom.

Architect Steve Tompkins, who has previously presided over the rebuilds of London’s Royal Court and Young Vic, is already past master at reinvigorating old buildings; but he’s also a genius at creating brand-new spaces like the Almeida’s temporary theatres at King’s Cross and the Gainsborough Studiios, and the National’s current Shed (which is presently seeking to extend its planning permission to stay on another year – but is unlikely to ever become permanent, Tompkins told me last night, as it wouldn’t last that long!)

At the Everyman, he’s created a brand-new building that feels like he has overhauled an old one, so that it seems like it has always been here. It’s both beautiful and brilliant.

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