Some venues take getting used to. I’m sure that the National wasn’t universally loved when it first opened — and probably still isn’t. My partner routinely says it looks like a nice car park. I happen to think it’s my favourite theatre building in London, and quite possibly the world.
That’s not just a question of architecture or aesthetics, of course, but of experience: I love it because of all the good associations I have with what I’ve seen there over the years. But more than that, it is nowadays properly lived in: it feels inviting and democratic, with its foyer music and exhibitions, ample and comfortable seating scattered throughout, the lovely river terraces and views across to St Paul’s, all accessible for free and whether or not you have a ticket to see a show there.
By the same token, I know I will never love the Barbican Centre, despite the fact that I’ve had some great experiences there, too. I enjoy the place once I’m seated in its comfortable main theatre, its beautiful wood-panelled concert hall, or basement cinema. But the foyer spaces that connect it all — or rather fail to — continue to be an ugly disaster, despite the £15m+ refurbishment that was carried out to it a few years ago.
A similar problem affects the Curve, Leicester’s flagship replacement theatre complex designed to replace the old Haymarket. The building, completed at a cost of some £61m (and going almost £35m over its original budget), did not, in the words of the Audit Commission in 2009, represent good value for public money. In the commission’s words, “The detailed operation of the innovative building was insufficiently considered at the design stage. The council commissioned a number of reports to review its management of the project and the rising costs and to learn lessons, but it is not clear that all recommendations have been fully implemented.”
And that’s before you’ve even set foot in the place, with its tall, echoing corridors that you hope are leading somewhere, but in fact don’t open up into anything more than another winding corridor that contains a box office and bar area. The huge cathedral-like height of the building and the long, narrow corridors make the arriving audience member feel like a squashed ant.
The theatre’s much-vaunted ‘transparency’, in which workshops and office levels are visible, and the stage area walls fall away after a performance to expose the bare workings behind them, don’t so much offer a window onto the magic of theatre as remove it. Actors weirdly have to cross public corridors in order to make their way to dressing rooms. And for all that this represented a key opportunity to create a flexible space that would lend itself to touring shows as well as in-house ones, they built themselves a theatre whose seating capacity is too small to take in big touring musicals.
It is perfectly clear that this radical theatre design concept was created by an architect who knows little about the workings of a real theatre and yet arrogantly wanted to reinvent it; but worse, it was pushed through by a board and existing artistic team who presumably do know what their business is.
Or maybe I’m just resistant to change. But I’ve spoken to leading theatre architects who’ve dubbed it to me as an object lesson that they hold up to students in how not to create new theatres. But now that they’ve got it, of course, Leicester is stuck with it. And far from being cowed by it, it’s been interesting to observe how the theatre is slowly finding its groove (and its audience, some of whom vanished during the hiatus inbetween Leicester Haymarket closing and the new one opening).
Attempts have been made to soften and lower the roof — there are giant hanging lanterns over the dismal corridors now, which also have (uncomfortable) seating ranged along parts of them. And visiting the theatre one recent weekday lunchtime, without a matinee on, it was nice to see the cafe at the front busy and occupied. (Food there is reasonably priced, too, and fast. Other theatres could learn a trick or two from this).
And ultimately, too, it is always also going to be about the artistic results. Paul Kerryson, who in his days at the Haymarket (and before that for Manchester’s Library Company at Wythenshaw), has long championed the work of Stephen Sondheim; he staged the first production I ever saw of Pacific Overtures at Wythenshawe in the mid-80s, and did a wonderful production of Merrily We Roll Along at Leicester, too, that Sondheim and Furth came over for and contributed extensive revisions for. (It was subsequently recorded for CD, and to declare an interest, I wrote the liner notes for it).
At the Critics’ Circle lunch in honour of Sondheim the week before last, the composer was talking about Kerryson’s work at Leicester and said he was a really good director of his work, and it was a pity that Kerryson wasn’t seen in London more. But if Kerryson doesn’t come to London, London comes to Kerryson, and there’s been a flurry of excitement around the rare appearance of Gypsy (which has lyrics by Sondheim to music by Jule Styne) on a British stage there; though I’ve seen all three of the Broadway revivals there have been in the last 21 years, it has only been seen once only in the West End, when it was staged at the Piccadilly in 1973 with Angela Lansbury (and then went back to Broadway, in turn, as the show’s first Broadway revival, ahead of the other three I’ve just mentioned).
That was before my theatregoing time; and although I have managed to see UK regional productions in Sheffield (with Meg Johnson) and Leeds (with Sheila Hancock) over the years, it was great to see it again here. Especially since the production marks a homecoming for Caroline O’Connor, a performer who got some of her earliest breaks at Leicester but has since gone on to appear everywhere from the London Coliseum and Royal Albert Hall to Broadway and an appearance in the film Moulin Rouge.
She’s one of a kind, and she’s hugely welcome; the Curve is also one of a kind, which is a kind of relief, but if it produces shows like this and The Light in the Piazza, trips to Leicester will once again become obligatory parts of my theatregoing life.