For the past few months, London’s two Troubadour Theatres have been a growing obsession of mine. It started out innocently enough: I was surprised that Tristan Baker and Oliver Royds – the men behind the successful King’s Cross Theatre – had decided to open a pair of enormous, 1,000-plus seaters in two far-flung redevelopments, Wembley Park and White City.
They were dynamic semi-pop-up venues that could be dismantled and put up elsewhere when their leases (seven years for Wembley Park, three for White City) were up. But however dynamic, that didn’t change the fact that they needed to get a lot of bums on seats. And being outside the centre of town they would seem to be more dependent on locals than those willing to cross London regularly.
If the programme’s not as thrilling as the King’s Cross Theatre, the Troubadour Wembley Park appears to have settled into a groove, with musicals in the main house and a busy cabaret-style programme in the studio.
The White City theatre, on the other hand, has been dark since September 1, well over two-thirds of the time it has technically been open. It’s this that has obsessed me. The theatre opened with a summer restaging of the National Theatre’s 2016 Christmas show Peter Pan (itself a remounting of the Bristol Old Vic’s 2012 Christmas show).
Initially, it was booking all the way through the summer, ploughing on to October half-term. It closed more than a month early, and nothing has been staged there since. Why? What was plan B? Was it wise to bet the farm on a celebrity-free show, heavily associated with Christmas, running for longer than it did at the National? A couple of people associated with the show have alleged to me – anonymously – that actors were even contracted up until January.
So, I asked Troubadour about it: in turn the company told me that in October the developers of White City Place had put it on notice that the site – which they had supposedly leased for three years – might be repurposed for development. Apparently this is now the case: Troubadour will vacate the site by April 2020.
What to make of it all? Troubadour White City’s demise strikes me as a cautionary tale about the way London’s current new theatre mini-boom seems to be linked hand-in-glove to gentrification. From the Bridge to the Turbine, almost every theatre that has opened – or is scheduled to open – in London, is part of a redevelopment.
This is broadly great: moving into pre-existing space is far easier and cheaper than purpose-building a freestanding venue. But it can lead to a certain rootlessness – venues not of their community, but grafted on to them, and somewhat at the mercy of the waves of development they hitch their wagons to. Whatever the ins and outs of Troubadour White City’s closure, it still doesn’t really explain the logic in programming Peter Pan: what community need was it responding to? Who were the 1,000 local people wanting to see it per night?
Whatever the case, it was clearly never the plan for Troubadour White City to last for less than a year, with fewer than three months of that time hosting an actual play. Local theatres should be pillars of communities – but in a couple of years’ time, few people will remember this one ever existed.
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