London is getting a new theatre — and we were among the first through the doors.
Soho's Boulevard Theatre was originally conceived as a simple 'black box', but a collaboration between London architects SODA Studio and international theatre consultants CharcoalBlue led to the space becoming something altogether more special.
The design was pushed towards a revolving and tilting stage inside a circular auditorium, which also repositions itself. The possibilities are truly endless, and a step way beyond existing options in theatres of a similar size.
A revolution in theatre design
Guided around the theatre by Russell Potter, director of SODA, we are most excited by just how 'finished' the space seems a month before opening — unusual for most new-built London venues. Lighting designers are preparing for the cabaret season, restaurant staff carry out training sessions. It's basically good to go.
But more of that groundbreaking design. The structural engineers were pushed to the limits both in the auditorium and foyer spaces as everything 'hangs' or 'floats' from a reinforced roof to deliver maximum flexibility.
The details are remarkable — the budget will be the envy of every fringe theatre, and although cost efficiencies were constantly sought, the quality of fittings, furniture and panelling are way beyond the reach of even the best-funded fringe theatres like Hampstead or the Bush.
It's also significant how different the Boulevard is from the Victorian or Secessionist styles of expensive renovations by Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. They'll want to come and take notes, too. Nothing here is off the peg. Walk into the bar and look at the staircase — the treads are formed from 25mm solid sheet steel folded into shape and the whole thing slung on brass-anodised rods, the handrails are wrapped with leather hand-stitched with cricket ball seams. It's been stress tested to accommodate the 160 maximum audience size, coming and going to the theatre, the restaurant and the bars.
More than just a theatre
Crossing the glass gantry that connects the two halves of the building, there's a panel of lace pressed into the floor. It's to protect you from the gaze of people beneath, but was also inspired by the tattered curtain of an on-site brothel, still in business when the project began.
Potter suggests the dwell time is 'all evening' — that customers will come for a drink, take in a show, maybe sample the plant-based tapas style menu, which Aussie chef Greg Hillier is planning for the all-day restaurant, then go back to the auditorium. By then, it may be a completely different shape, for a comedy or music gig.
Not a bad seat in the house
Unusually for a theatre, there's natural daylight — the axial views up Berwick Street Market and down to Leicester Square will make the bar an enjoyable daytime venue, and the auditorium converts from daylit conference space to darkened theatre in about seven seconds. The spaces are a pleasing blend of mid-century modernism and art deco: hard surfaces softened by a palette of pinkish cream, marble, brass which looks almost bronze, and cobalt is unlike anything else in Theatreland.
Up, finally, in the auditorium, the room feels intimate: low-ceilinged, circular and snug — perfect for cabaret, engaging for drama. Sightlines are excellent; we tried several and there seem to be no 'bad' seats. And the seats themselves are a revelation: compact but clubby, the seat, side and back panels are caramel coloured leather, in a polished wooden shell. We've put bums on countless London theatre seats and these may just be the most comfortable one we've encountered.
Raymond’s Revuebar reimagined
As for the Boulevard's location — it would be hard to think of another alleyway in Soho that more completely reflects its louche past and commercial present than Walker's Court. This was home for 48 years to Raymond’s Revuebar, its neon billboard declaimed it was the 'World Centre of Erotic Entertainment'. The 'sex baron's' granddaughter Fawn James heads up Soho Estates, which has invested £40 million in its development of the old Revuebar site, at the heart of which is this magnificent theatre.
Skulking underneath for just as long until it lost its licence in 2014, was Madame JoJo's — the plush velvet and trilled mirror decorated basement where drag, burlesque and alternative cabaret flourished unseen by the punters up in the street making their way to dinner, dancing or working girls.
The cherry under the cake is that the much-loved Madame JoJo's will reopen in the last phase of the development, hopefully mid- 2020 when the space has been further excavated to allow a gallery level of seats to be added to increase capacity.
What's on the bill
If the building will make you catch your breath (and it will), so too will the programming. Artistic director Rachel Edwards was the brain behind the celebrated Tooting Pie Shop Sweeney Todd, which exploded over Londonist back in 2014 and thence to the West End and eventually Broadway.
Boulevard Theatre officially opens on 31 October with Ghost Quartet, a song cycle around four interwoven stories by American composer Dave Malloy and we'll be there to review the production and the restaurant.
We're also looking forward Kathy Burke’s upcoming production of The Cavalcaders, a Billy Roche play about a barber shop quartet set in a cobbler's shop in southwest Ireland. "It's mad", says Burke, "It's like we're doing 42nd Street with a cast of six".
One more thing — top price for the theatre season is £36. You literally cannot see how they do it for the money. We're excited. So should you be.
Boulevard Theatre, 6 Walker's Court, Soho