Mark Shenton’s top venues: London Coliseum
Frank Matcham may have been the greatest theatre architect of his – or any – generation. Up and down the land from Aberdeen, Belfast, Blackpool, Bristol and Buxton to Glasgow and Richmond in south-west London, and across the West End, there are enduring examples of his fantastic ability to create large, traditional theatre spaces that combine an epic sense of occasion with the simple practicalities required of an entertainment building, like offering great sight lines and the perfect relationship between stage and auditorium.
Since most of these buildings are now a hundred years old or more, not all of them are in the greatest condition. The London Palladium, for instance, one of his defining London masterpieces, may have had its public areas recently spruced up, but the auditorium remains slightly dour – it needs a major unveiling of the architectural splendour hidden under decades of ugly paint. Cameron Mackintosh has now taken ownership of the Victoria Palace, and when Billy Elliot vacates the theatre next month is being closed for a major refurbishment: would that the London Palladium followed suit.
But my two absolutely favourites of his buildings have, thank God, had major facelifts: Hackney Empire (which I’ll save for another day) and today’s entry, the London Coliseum. This is simply one of the most epic theatre spaces in London – not just in terms of seating capacity, but in its palpable sense of occasion every time you enter it.
It was originally built and first opened in 1904 as a (very) grand music hall and variety house, but has long been the home of the currently beleaguered English National Opera, which also owns it; it was ENO who spearheaded the amazing £41m refurbishment, with lottery funding, that finally saw it restored to its former glory, reopening in 2004. Jonathan Glancy, an architecture correspondent for The Guardian, said in a feature at the time: “For as many years as anyone can remember, and until finally closed for restoration last June, the Coliseum has been in a sorry state. The voluminous auditorium was a glum affair: a darkened box, faintingly hot in summer, as threadbare as the ENO’s productions were brightly woven.”
But, Glancy went on, after its refurbishment: “Everywhere you turn, the restored Coliseum looks good and feels generous. As it should do. The Coliseum was always meant to shine, to draw a music-hall besotted public into the new world of variety performances for all the family in a building as rich as a Christmas pudding. Where music hall audiences drank at tables, families can sit in the plush red seats of the Coliseum’s auditorium, presented with uninterrupted views of lavish shows on a grand proscenium stage.”
But if its auditorium is in tip-top shape (even a dozen years later, it still feels luxurious), ENO is alas not, at least not financially or administratively. A year ago the company was put under ‘special measures’ and its status as a national portfolio organisation was removed by its main funder, Arts Council England. It sought to put its house in order – which led to the departure of artistic director John Berry – and is now locked in a dispute with its chorus, whose terms it is seeking to radically change as it tries to reduce costs.
But it also remains the most accessible opera company I know anywhere, not just for the very affordable balcony that also has great views and sound (unlike the remote amphitheatre at Covent Garden) or its raison d’etre (singing operas in English) but also for the adventurousness of its productions.
I’ve just had one of the best theatre nights of the year so far seeing Phelim McDermott’s phenomenal new production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. I’ve been around long enough to have seen the original ENO production of this opera in 1985, receiving its UK premiere two years after it was originally premiered in the US, and it remains the greatest contemporary opera I’ve ever seen or heard. As my colleague George Hall stated in a five-star review for The Stage, it is both “musically and visually mesmerising”; and as he concluded, “The bigger question is whether Arts Council England, having witnessed the widespread dismay caused by the results of their withdrawal of core funding, can now show strength rather than weakness by reconsidering their decision. The stature of ENO’s current work – including this outstanding show – demands no less.”
Meanwhile, ENO is engaged, with producers Michael Grade and Michael Linnit, in expanding the remit of the house to musicals, which once had a home here in the 40s and 50s, with a revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s Sunset Boulevard playing there from April 1. Glenn Close will be reprising her Broadway turn as Norma Desmond from 21 years ago, opposite Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis. I can’t wait to see it again.
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