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Critic Andrzej Lukowski: Gentrification has brought in new theatres, but what is their vision?

The Bridge Theatre entrance. Photo: Philip Vile The Bridge Theatre entrance. Photo: Philip Vile
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When it was announced that the Troubadour White City Theatre’s inaugural production – a revival of the National Theatre’s 2016 Christmas hit Peter Pan – would close almost two months shy of its ambitious three-month inaugural run, it failed to answer the main question begged by the Troubadour endeavour: what is the actual plan for this enormous new theatre?

There have been many waves of theatre creation in London. Broadly speaking, most of them – from the Elizabethan Globe to the fringe of the 1980s – have responded to obvious demand. Now, in London at least, there’s a new and sometimes perplexing wave of theatres that seem to exist because of gentrification.

The ‘g’ word can be a controversial one. But there are different types of gentrification and it is not intrinsically a bad thing. Southwark Playhouse has essentially ridden those waves for its entire lifespan, bounced around SE1 multiple times by the ongoing tarting up of London Bridge station.

Southwark Playhouse confirms move to two permanent homes from next year

It’s soon due to split to two locations: back to London Bridge, at a spot long-promised by Network Rail, and a new gaff in the redeveloped Elephant and Castle, where the Playhouse has resided for the last few years. It’s a bit confusing, but essentially logical.

The relative granddaddy of this new wave is Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre: whatever the ups and downs of its programming, that the former artistic director of the National Theatre can virtually pop up a venue in a swanky Tower Bridge development feels valuable.

Andrzej Lukowski: Why hasn’t the Bridge Theatre delivered a new-writing hit?

In fact, many of these theatres are occupying spaces in new and gentrified buildings. An exception is the imminent Boulevard Theatre, which is being created because it seems owners Soho Estates just wanted a theatre: kind of cavalier, but it comes with an interesting, neighbour-specific vision.

Elsewhere, the vision feels more elusive. The Turbine Theatre in the Battersea Power Station redevelopment was announced in July, opened last week, and has a single production on its books: Torch Song. That’s pretty much all we know about it; maybe it’ll become clearer, but at the moment it feels strangely anonymous.

And then there are the two enormous Troubadour theatres, servicing the regeneration of White City and Wembley Park. It makes sense on paper, but neither has presented any compelling vision beyond slapping on some old family shows and hoping for the best.

These theatres are not identical cases. Gentrification is a weird and unstable thing. It has allowed for the rapid creation of venues, spawning a generation of London theatres. But at present, the ‘how’ of building a new theatre seems to have proceeded the ‘why’.

Andrzej Lukowski is theatre editor at Time Out London and a regular contributor to The Stage. Read more of his articles at thestage.co.uk/author/andrzej-lukowski

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