Building Greenwich Theatre

Yes – I’m still enjoying the Greenwich Theatre Book, currently on loan to me, and today, I’ve got to the best bit, the actual rebuild. Apologies for the images btw; I was trying to scan them without cracking a very old perfect-bound spine. It’s for that reason I haven’t included the plans – they were just too cut-off…

Just as a recap, the theatre’s been around for donkey’s years, mainly as a music hall under various glamorous (and not-so-glamorous) names and later as a cinema before falling into disrepair. During the 1960s it was a glorious, ornate, damaged  shell of its former self – here’s a fabulous drawing of it in its sad state by Geoffrey Fletcher, which I’m bound to be shot down for but I’ll keep for a little while as I think it’s really important to the story:

Fletcher was fascinated by the state London was in generally in the post-war period (if you get a chance, do try to see the somewhat surreal film he made to go with the series of articles and books he produced. I credit him alongside people like Sir John Betjeman for bringing the plight of London’s crumbling heritage to public attention, but he does seem to have been something of a character, never afraid of wading in for a punch up. I particularly love his account of being in St Alfege church and noticing – heavens – a tough-type in a cloth cap and – double-heavens – eating an ice-cream.

I said “You’ve got your head covered and you happen to be in a church.”
“So What?”
“So it’s an impertinence, and what’s more you’ve no business to be eating here either.”
“Nobody minds.”
“You may think so but I disapprove and so does God.

So there.

In his book London’s River, written at the time when the new theatre was just being mooted, he says that the rather fabulous proscenium arch of what he calls one of the smallest theatre interior in London, that he’s pictured here was to be kept – it would seem that ultimately that wasn’t possible, nor was it possible to keep the galleries which he says were far too gone to be kept.

But back to the Greenwich Theatre Book and its account of the actual rebuilding – I’ll go into the way it came about another day. The theatre was an adjunct of the next door Rose and Crown pub – a fact that was confirmed when the demolition gang found a connecting door between them underneath multiple layers of plaster. The place had been used as a warehouse ever since it had died as a picturehouse but the circle, boxes and gallery were still there, albeit in terrible nick.

The original plans for the theatre’s renaissance had included all of these features, but as things went forward, it became less and less viable to keep stuff – not least because of the lack of fire exits. This had always been an issue, and Greenwich Theatre had always lagged behind its rival Greenwich Theatre Royal (roughly where the Borough Hall is now) which, when it was known as the rather-less glamorous Mortons Theatre, had special fire exits built in as a way to lure risk-averse punters away from Crowders – and used the fact in its advertising:

The picture’s borrowed from the superb Over The Footlights PDF – really – if you’re into theatre and you’ve never seen it, take a look at the website now.

But I’m digressing again. The developers found more and more things that regulations just wouldn’t let them keep. They were pretty fed up about this, but it did at least mean that they’d have an empty space to design from scratch, for a modern audience.

As you can see from the picture of director Ewan Hooper at the top of the post, the cost was largely met by good old fashioned fundraising but the £120,000 they needed came in in dribs and drabs, so they built the place in phases.

1) The shell (unsurprisingly) including the foyer, art gallery and coffee bar on the top floor (which sounds intriguing – wonder what happened to that. If it’s still around wouldn’t it make a fabulous ‘secret’ coffee place for people in-the-know…) It was constructed by Lister  and Co. of Holborn in 1967.

2) Structural stuff – including asphalting the roof, by Humphreys of Knightsbridge House, Wallington.

3)  Partitioning, finishes and joinery – this time by a Greenwich firm, J. Turpin Ltd.

Sitting in the theatre the other night, screaming  ’It’s behind you!’ at the top of my spectral voice, I did take a little moment to look at the actual building and I think that, under the circumstances the boy done good. It works. And it’s up to us to keep it working.

The question is, how to do that. It’s not a finite amount of money to create a building we need any more. That, in comparison to giving a living theatre room to live, breathe and produce the kind of quality it currently only manages at Christmas the rest of the year round, is relatively easy. People are fired by a finite project. Perpetuating the kind of funding to keep a place alive is a harder ask.

I – and I am sure the theatre – would love to know how that could be accomplished – perhaps there’s a way the community can come together again. In the meanwhile, the only sure way to keep our local theatre, which people made such an effort to re-build,  is to actually go. I’ll see you at the next show…

the attachments to this post:


low building greenwich theatre 4
low building greenwich theatre 4

low building greenwich theatre 3
low building greenwich theatre 3

low building greenwich theatre 2
low building greenwich theatre 2

low building greenwich theatre 1
low building greenwich theatre 1

One Comment to “Building Greenwich Theatre”

  1. Ebspig says:

    Yes, three thousand cheers for Ewan who did it all with such charm and diplomacy, and a name check for the architect Brian Meeking, who had an almost impossible brief.