Mark Shenton’s top venues: King’s Cross Theatre, London
Here’s a theatre that’s a true game-changer, not to mention a shape-shifter. It’s a West End theatre – with the seating capacity of one – and officially designated as one by the theatre’s professional trade body, the Society of London Theatre, so productions that play there are eligible for the Olivier Awards. (This year, it saw In the Heights – which transferred there from the fringe Southwark Playhouse – win three coveted musical theatre categories, including best theatre choreographer).
But you’re not going to find the plush (or even threadbare) gilt splendour of a venerable West End theatre here; instead, this is a practical, functional performance space, originally set up under canvas tents to accommodate a return London run of the Olivier award-winning stage version of The Railway Children that had previously played on actual railway tracks at Waterloo station. This time, they’ve retained the railway connection by having the site where the tent is pitched right behind King’s Cross station. And with a train track installed down the middle of the tent that bisects the audience into two in a traverse arrangement, they’re able to run the steam train right into the auditorium as they did at Waterloo.
The spacious, even glamorous, wood-floored foyer space is decorated like a railway station, too. (I’d love to see Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter revived here sometime). But what is quietly astonishing is that Tristan Baker, co-producer with Charlie Parsons of Runaway Entertainment, hasn’t stopped at building a theatre and putting a show on there – he’s putting another show on there at the same time. For In the Heights, the space is reconfigured and drawn in from 994 seats for The Railway Children to 500; but also the foyer space is entirely transformed and redecorated between shows, with a New York subway vibe for In the Heights replacing the railway cafe setting.
The venue is a model, in every sense, for how theatre may work in the (near) future: the producers are not beholden to West End theatre owners for availability (always tight in the competitive market right now) or the rental demands (always high for the same reasons: supply and demand for the real estate). Not only that, but having built the theatre, Baker also retains control over everything from ticketing (though he retains a third party supplier to provide the service for him) to owning all secondary income, too, from bar sales to programmes.
The theatre cost about £1 million to put up, but that’s small potatoes compared to the amount he’d have spent by now renting equivalent space in a West End theatre (none of which, in any case, could have accommodated The Railway Children). So a theatre borne out of necessity and resourcefulness has turned into a new way of producing shows that could blow apart the complacency of West End theatre owners who thought they had the entire field open to them.
And I also love the different sense of occasion you get by going there: canvas tents are typically associated with going to the circus, yet here you get a legit theatrical experience. And comfort isn’t spared, either: the seats are really comfortable (and the loos are spacious and clean). This is a win-win venue – and if and when the owners have to vacate their King’s Cross premises, they can simply find another site and move it there.
King’s Cross Theatre
Good’s Way, King’s Cross, London N1C 4UR
Operations manager: Siobhan Lightfoot
Theatre manager: Erika O’Neill
Duty manager: Shane Hough
Bar and merchandise manager: David Thorn
Site manager: Boo Spiers
Ticketing manager: Graham Hill
Box office manager: Ross Finbow