Nimax’s new theatre on the site of the old Astoria will make an intriguing addition to London’s Theatreland.
The Astoria was demolished in 2009 to make way for the Crossrail redevelopment around Tottenham Court Road. Nimax was announced as the operator of the proposed 350-seat venue in 2011. Since then, progress has been slow – although work was never intended to start until 2017 at the earliest, after the new underground station was complete.
In the meantime, the theatre’s size has been increased to 600 seats: a smart move. This means it will have a larger capacity than the Duchess and will not be far off the size of the Apollo and Vaudeville theatres, all of which Nimax currently operates. Other West End theatres of a similar size include the St Martin’s, Duke of York’s and Criterion theatres.
What will set the space apart from those venues is the fact that it will be in the round. While that might limit the range of shows that can transfer into the space from traditional proscenium-arch venues, it will make an ideal home for work that has originated in spaces such as the Royal Exchange in Manchester, the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough or the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme – all of which have similar capacities and configurations but cannot easily move work into other West End venues.
When the project was announced, Nimax’s new theatre was expected to be the first West End theatre of this type, but, when it opens towards the end of 2021, it could be joining another landmark venue with in-the-round capabilities. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, currently undergoing a £45 million redevelopment, will have the capacity to be transformed into a 2,000-seat in-the-round space when it reopens. And, in fact, the last new West End theatre to open – the Gillian Lynne, known as the New London when it launched nearly 50 years ago – also boasts the ability to be configured as both a proscenium and in more immersive configurations.
A number of leading West End figures, including Andrew Lloyd Webber and Howard Panter, have previously spoken out about how restrictive the traditional West End theatre stock is. But it seems that things are finally starting to shift – these West End theatres, coupled with others such as the flexible Bridge Theatre near Tower Bridge or even Space 18, the new, purpose-built, immersive theatre space on Oxford Street, should open up a whole new wealth of possibilities for theatre artists looking to break through the fourth wall.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith