It's not everyday London gets a new theatre. Littered with world-class examples, some dating from the 1800s, newly built performance spaces in the capital are few and far between. So we were very excited to be given a sneak preview around the new St James Theatre ahead of its opening later this month.
The first purpose-built theatre complex to open in London for 30 years, the St James Theatre sits on a side street in Victoria, just across from Buckingham Palace. It occupies the same site as the old Westminster Theatre which was demolished in 2002 after a fire destroyed three-quarters of the building.
Once inside, we were immediately reminded of the Trafalgar Studios. As well as offering two different sized spaces (the main theatre seats 312; the studio around 100), the St James even has similar big black-and-white photos lining the stairs. Instead of Tom Stoppard and the other theatrical idols of the Trafalgar, here its Marilyn, Marlene and various Hepburns.
Of the two auditoria, the studio certainly feels Hollywood-plush. Set up for cabaret or comedy nights with a baby grand on stage, sumptuous black velvety seats, a funky mezzanine, and cocooning silky dark panelled walls, we could imagine some impressively intimate nights here, provided the right names can be wooed to the space. (Frisky & Mannish are booked for October, which is promising.)
Other glam touches include a massive sculptured staircase by designer Mark Humphrey made of about 6 tonnes of Italian marble; a large all-white foyer bar with big windows out onto the street; and a posh 60-seater restaurant on the first floor, which we're told will serve "modern cuisine" perfect for pre-show dinners.
Our charming guides for the tour are eager to pinpoint the theatre's uniqueness. Steeply raked seating in the larger venue means there are no bad sight lines, we are reassured. London has no equivalent of the Off-Broadway theatre; the St James will change all that, with an incredible programme of plays previously seen in the UK but not yet in London; or of new European, Americans or Australian shows. We try to point out that there's the Almeida, the Donmar, the Finborough, the Trafalgar Studios all of a similar size, all competing for the same audiences… but this fails to dent their enthusiasm. The St James has a broadcast TV facility enabling performances to be shown live on BskyB or online (OK, we'll give them that one). The St James is also ready for corporate hire, film screenings, award ceremonies, team-building days. Whatever you want to use this space for, it'll accommodate your every need. It's later pointed out that the complex needs to make a million in its first year; and it'll take two to three years to break even. No wonder they're open for bookings…
But with Robert Mackintosh (Cameron's brother) as CEO and David Gilmore as Artistic Director, the venue certainly has an ambitious team at the helm. The first season is intriguingly varied: a new play by Sandi Toksvig; the premier of two-hander American musical; and a revival of Our Country's Good directed by Max Stafford-Clarke. Time will tell how this new addition settles into London's theatrical scenery.
The season at the St James Theatre, 12 Palace Street, Victoria, SW1E opens on 18 September. Visit www.stjamestheatre.co.uk for more information.