[I was checking some U.K. reviews of a British play, one of which was in the London Telegraph. While I was reading the notice, I spotted a link to a story headlined “10 Theatres in Weird Places,” and it intrigued me. So I made a note to go back and have a look after I finished reading the four or five reviews I’d found on line, and when I did, I decided it was interesting enough to repost on ROT when I had a slot to fill. (My favorite weird theater is the one in a men’s “convenience”—that’s the British euphemism for ‘bathroom’!) The theaters in this collection are all British (eight are English; two are Scottish), but the facts are wonderfully idiosyncratic. I wish someone had compiled a list of “weird theaters” like this in the U.S.—I’m sure we have plenty. (The university theater at my alma mater back in the ’60s was in a 19th-century building that had previously served as a shoe factory and a [rumored] brothel, among other purposes. I’m sure other playhouses in this country can match that pedigree.) Until someone does put together such a list, however, enjoy this little lagniappe—an unlooked-for gift—from London.
[I’ve taken the liberty of editing the Telegraph’s comments. I didn’t cut anything, but I added information here and there that I thought would help my fellow Americans follow the descriptions and histories. Be on your toes, though: I didn’t change any Britishisms in diction or spelling!]
CUTTY SARK, LONDON SE10
Picture: Cutty Sark Trust
By day, the lower hold of London’s famous tea clipper, the Cutty Sark [built in 1869; located near the centre of Greenwich, in south-east London], is crammed with tea chests, offering visitors a glimpse of how the cargo ship would have looked in its 18th-century heyday. These days, however, the chests contain new spoils: the components of an intimate theatre, which can be set up in the hold – either with a thrust stage or in the round – in just under an hour. The Michael Edwards Studio Theatre (rmg.co.uk/cuttysark/studio-theatre), which opens on January 29, seats up to 110 people and will host a programme of cabaret, comedy, music, special lectures, small scale-drama and even films, which will be projected onto yet more stacks of tea chests. Eventually, the team behind the theatre hopes to extend their programming to use the rest of the ship; two proposed ideas are promenade theatre and a performance of The Tempest on the ship’s deck.
TOBACCO FACTORY THEATRES, BRISTOL
Picture: Tobacco Factory
In the early 20th century, Bristol [a city in South West England, about 118 miles due west of London] was home to the headquarters of Imperial Tobacco – a vast complex of buildings covering around 1 million square feet. In the Seventies and Eighties, the factory was closed down and quickly became derelict, with a section of it being demolished. But George Ferguson, then head of RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects] and now mayor of Bristol, bought the remainder of the building, transforming it into a thriving theatre with a proudly diverse programme. In August 2009, the Factory Theatre (tobaccofactorytheatres.com), as it is now called, was joined by the Brewery Theatre, a cosy 90-seat auditorium just down the road in a former tyre garage, which backs onto the Bristol Beer Factory.
MINACK THEATRE, CORNWALL
This spectacular open-air theatre began its life in the 1920s when a sparky young woman named Rowena Cade arrived in West Cornwall [a region of England abour 285 miles southwest of London]. Having lost her father during the First World War, Cade bought a piece of rocky headland known as Minack, built a house for herself and her mother and set about making theatre. Performances were initially staged in her garden, but a production of The Tempest prompted Cade to consider using the craggy outcrop at the end of her garden as a stage. With the help of two craftsmen, she built a rough stage and seating from local granite, and, with her audience facing out to sea, the Minack Theatre (www.minack.com) staged its first performance. Today, the theatre’s season runs from April to September, with a mix of concerts and plays, many of which are performed by small theatre companies. It also offers a great range of shows for children.
THEATRE OF SMALL CONVENIENCE, GREAT MALVERN
Originally a Victorian gentlemen's lavatory, this tiny stone building in Great Malvern [an area of the spa town of Malvern, Worcestershire, 140 miles northwest of London] served as a children’s clothes shop and antique store before Dennis Neale, a keen puppeteer and drama enthusiast, bought it in 1997. Seating only 12 audience members at a time, the theatre holds five-minute puppet shows, performed from behind a façade made up of old furniture and broken musical instruments, which Neale scavenged or bought during the two years it took him to convert the building (wctheatre.co.uk). The puppets, too, are made from assorted bric-a-brac – everything from boxing gloves to sewing machine treadles – and the theatre’s decorative painted walls are the work of Neale’s son. The theatre opens for extra sessions during the school holidays but Neale insists that most of his visitors are adults. “Perhaps they have short attention spans, like me,” he says.
JACKSONS LANE, LONDON N6
Picture: Jacksons Lane
The red bricks of this beautiful Grade II listed Edwardian church [a former Wesleyan Methodist church, opened in 1905; Grade II designates buildings that are of special interest] in Highgate [a suburban area of north London] contain not only a RIBA-award winning 160-capacity theatre, complete with original gothic arches, but also a dance and rehearsal studio (nestled in the eaves of the church’s vaulted ceiling), café, bar and four other multi-purpose spaces (jacksonslane.org.uk). The venue specialises in contemporary performance and circus. Expect mime, colourful physical theatre for children and – thanks to the impressive dimensions of the main theatre – aerial acts, German Wheel practitioners and acrobatics.
ROYAL EXCHANGE, MANCHESTER
Picture: John Husband / Alamy
Founded in 1976, Manchester’s [a city about 210 miles northwest of London] Royal Exchange is housed in the city’s former Cotton Trading Exchange. The main theatre, which holds 760 people in the round, sits within a seven-sided steel and glass module, suspended from four huge columns of the Exchange’s domed Great Hall, but the building also has a small flexible studio space. While it is now thriving, the producing theatre has had a rocky history. In 1996, an IRA bomb exploded nearby, causing such extensive damage to the theatre that it was forced to close for two years and complete a £32 million [$45.2 million] renovation. It reopened in 1998 and has been going strong ever since, gaining a reputation for staging promising new writing (royalexchange.co.uk).
Picture: Jeffrey Blackler / Alamy
One of the lynchpins of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe [world’s largest arts festival, held annually in August], the Underbelly is a cavernous maze of performance spaces, eateries and bars set in the vaults below the central library of Edinburgh [the capital of Scotland, 415 miles north of London]. First opened in 2000, the venue originally operated out of three spaces – the Iron Belly, the White Belly and the Big Belly – but a host of new ‘bellies’ has been added in the last 14 years, and the venue now offers everything from big-name comedians and burlesque acts in the Big Belly to more experimental performances – think one-man ukulele storytelling acts – in the intimate Baby Belly (underbelly.co.uk) .
WATERMILL THEATRE, WEST BERKSHIRE
Arguably one of the UK’s prettiest theatres, the Watermill (watermill.org.uk) in Bagnor, West Berkshire, [a hamlet close to the town of Newbury, 61½ miles west of London] was founded in 1967 in, you've guessed it, a converted mill. Dating back to 1830 (it is even recorded in the Domesday book) the building was used as a corn, fullers [fulling is the cleansing of wool cloth to eliminate impurities], and fine paper mill before falling into disrepair. It was restored, along with its tithe barn [used in the Middle Ages for storing rents and tithes], by theatre enthusiast David Gollins and in 1981 was purchased by Jill and James Sargant, who developed it from a local rep into a renowned producing house, specialising in Shakespeare and musical theatre. Many of its productions now transfer to both the West End and Broadway.
Glasgow’s [the largest city in Scotland, 412 miles north of London] sprawling contemporary arts centre was founded in 1998 but the history of its home reaches back to 1893. The building originally served as the city’s main tram terminus, depot and factory, before becoming the Museum of Transport in the early 1960s, when the tram system became obsolete. [‘Tram’ is the British word for trolley or streetcar; ‘tramway’ is the streetcar line.] Tramway was eventually launched as a result of the search for a venue to house what would be the only UK performances of Peter Brook’s Indian epic Mahabharata in 1988. Today, the venue specialises in contemporary visual and performing art – hosting its programme in five very different spaces – as well as providing a headquarters for the Scottish Ballet (tramway.org) .
LANGHAM HOTEL, LONDON W1
Picture: Will Wintercross
In 2012, acclaimed theatre company Defibrillator took over three rooms in Holborn’s Grange Hotel, squeezing audience members in alongside actors as they performed three short, site-specific works by Tennessee Williams. This year [sorry, this was in 2014] they’re doing it all again. But while they have once more chosen Williams as their subject – they will perform his one-act plays Green Eyes, Sunburst, and The Pink Bedroom – they have upgraded their surroundings somewhat. Audience members will arrive at the Langham [in the district of Marylebone in central London], Europe’s first ‘grand hotel’, and be led on an immersive journey from the decadent lobby to a set of three luxurious suites (thehotelplays.co.uk).
[Posted on the London Telegraph, 29 January 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/10603169/10-theatres-in-weird-places.html?frame=2804909; downloaded on 9 April 2016.]