You could, if you so chose, take yourself on a technical theatre history walking tour around London’s West End. King Street was the home of the Strand Electrical and Engineering Company, for a long time the leading theatre lighting manufacturer on the planet, and its famous demonstration theatre.
On to Mercer Street, location of the Theatre Projects shop to which top production electricians apparently had their own keys just in case they needed anything in the middle of an overnight fit-up – while other parts of the expansive TP empire were hidden away in the surrounding warren of streets.
Then you’d reach the Donmar, sitting between Earlham Street and Shorts Gardens, with the sales shop opening on to the latter – and neighbour to the theatre that now bears the name. Then there’s the one with the most theatrical site of all, TSL, right in the back of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
Not that you’ll find any of those companies there now, of course. Instead, 29 King Street is a fancy florist. Donmar is part of a food and drink market. The TP shop, entirely gone – now just a gap through to a new phalanx of restaurants. And TSL is likely the site office for the big Drury Lane rebuild. Because, ironically, the companies that exist purely to service and supply theatre can no longer afford to locate themselves at the heart of one of their key markets.
This change has happened over my working life. One lighting supplier has a central London office, but if you need lighting equipment in the West End – even a roll of colour or that extra gobo – it comes from Wimbledon, New Cross, Bristol, Birmingham or Leicester. That can hardly tick the boxes on our drive to make the West End greener.
We’re not the only industry affected by these urban shifts, of course. Long before lighting moved out to find bigger, more efficient warehouses, so the fruit and vegetable market left Covent Garden to the tourists – very likely leaving empty buildings ready to be occupied by those theatrical suppliers.
But in time, everything old becomes new again: supermarkets are suddenly billing the concept of bringing your own bags, even empty containers to refill, as radical new inventions; both are returns to how things used to be. Perhaps there will one day be a business case for a little technical shop in the heart of the West End?
Until then, we should make sure we appreciate the theatrical support facilities that continue to exist within walking distance of the centre of London and other theatrical cities, despite the high costs of rent, rates and the rest. Rehearsal rooms, in particular – there’s a different logic, an argument that they need a central location for actors to gather. But the hard rule of accountancy would make it easy to say, let’s just move away and let all involved travel a little further. They haven’t – but if we don’t keep using them and paying reasonably for them, they oh-so-easily could.
Rob Halliday is a lighting designer and programmer. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/Rob-Halliday