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Mark Shenton: Isn’t it time we stopped building new theatres in London?

The new venue will become home to the London Theatre Company. Photo: Haworth Tompkins One Tower Bridge will become home to the London Theatre Company, a new independent producing company founded by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr. Photo: Haworth Tompkins
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Not a week, it seems, goes by without the announcement of yet another new theatre opening in London. Last week came news that Underbelly is set to site a 650-seat Spiegeltent in Embankment Gardens, to be known as the Embankment Garden Theatre, between February and October for the next three years.

The Bunker Theatre, a new performance space below the Menier Chocolate Factory, is a 110-seat space opening on October 12 with Isley Lynn’s Skin a Cat, previously seen as part of the 2016 Vault Festival in London.

And the Donmar Warehouse is previewing its new all-female production of The Tempest in a new, temporary tent-theatre at King’s Cross; Lazarus, the transfer of Ivo van Hove’s production of David Bowie’s musical, will also play on the site next month.

That’s without the longer-term plans for Nick Hytner and Nick Starr’s new theatre on the South Bank near Tower Bridge, or the new Nimax studio theatre being created at Tottenham Court Road.

In a terrific blog post, theatremaker, producer and writer Jake Orr questioned whether London really needs all these new theatres. “Call me a grinch, but I’ve got a gut instinct on this and it is telling me that London doesn’t need another theatre,” he writes. “Londoners are cultural by nature, in a city that’s bursting at the seams with cultural opportunity, with some of the world’s best museums, art galleries and, yes, our thriving West End, we’re spoilt for choice. So why are we still building new theatres and converting spaces into performance venues and pop-up theatres in a saturated market?”

It’s a very good question to ask. It’s not as if the theatres that we already have are full to bursting. Yes, some are; you can’t get tickets for most shows at the Donmar Warehouse, Almeida Theatre or Menier Chocolate Factory, for instance (or for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, though that’s another story). And perhaps the Donmar scheme to move its Shakespeare trilogy off-site will increase capacity there, at least, for it is still in a sympathetically intimate environment, without the theatre having to pay West End rental fees.

I saw it argued on Twitter that, with London’s ever-expanding population, there’s a need to expand theatrical provision to meet the possible demand; but we’re nowhere near reaching capacity on the venues we already have. And surely the more venues there are, the more it will dissipate the existing audience. Many fringe venues are already in crisis, especially now that Time Out no longer exists as it once did to provide a comprehensive guide that might help to encourage visits.

I suspect a lot of the new theatre ‘builds’ (conversions of pop-ups) are driven by something else: sheer theatrical vanity and ego. Instead of waiting for an artistic directorship to come up at one of the existing venues, it is far easier (at least superficially) to find a room, and appoint yourself artistic director.

That’s not to dispute that some make a roaring success of it. The Menier is one of London’s biggest independent theatre success stories, taking on the Donmar and Almeida at their own game and sending more shows to the West End and Broadway than either of those houses have done in the past decade. The Yard, like the Arcola did before it, has made a definite mark on the theatrical ecology, too, in a very short amount of time. It’s difficult to imagine London without either, now.

But do we really need awful spaces such as the Vaults or Found 111 that are desperately uncomfortable to visit, however hip and happening they want to seem to be? It’s not as if tickets for Found 111 are even cheap: they sell at £35. For that, you can get a top-price ticket in the National Theatre’s Travelex season (the latest show, Amadeus, is about to open in the Olivier). Or two shows in the same season in the lower price tier of £15, with change for a drink, too.

Perhaps we need to invest in building the audiences at existing theatres, as the success of Travelex has proved, without the distraction of trying to build new audiences at theatres that don’t yet exist.

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