Thursday, July 24, 2008

WHATSONSTAGE.COM - Arts Closes Before Rebuild, Edith Heads to Square Date: 24 July 2008

With the closure of the Arts Theatre – which, after early shutterings for two of its summer productions, ventriloquist Jay Johnson’s The Two and Only and musical sex comedy All Bob's Women (See News, 11 Jul 2008), has shut down five months earlier than planned for property redevelopment – the nearby and recently renamed Leicester Square Theatre (formerly The Venue) will reopen slightly ahead of schedule.

A Conversation With Edith Head, American Susan Claassen’s one-woman show about the late Oscar-winning costume designer (See News, 25 Jun 2008), was due to run at the Arts from 31 July to 30 August 2008 (previews from 29 July). It will now find a home, for the same dates, at the new Leicester Square Theatre, inaugurating the 70-seat, downstairs Studio Space. Leicester Square’s 420-seat main house will still officially open on 29 August with the UK premiere of Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress (See News, 26 Jun 2008).

Both theatre are now under the management of programmer and producer Martin Witts. A two-year redevelopment of the block of Great Newport Street where the Arts is located is due to commence in January 2009. Under Westminster City Council planning laws designed to preserve the address for theatrical use, a new theatre must be built as part of any new complex.

Exact plans are still awaiting Council sign-off, but property developer Laurence Kirschel has said that, as part of his £20 million overhaul, he envisages a 317-capacity, state-of-the-art theatre with hydraulically retractable seats that will reveal an open-plan space that could also be used as an after-show lounge.

Kirschel recently told the Evening Standard: “The reason that theatres don’t make money is that they are closed more often than they are open. We would look at how we can transform the space into a useful area when it is not being used for a show … What we wanted to create was akin to a Soho House or a Groucho Club for theatregoers, thespians and other people involved in the industry.”

Built in 1927, the Arts started as a theatre club to avoid the Lord Chamberlain’s stage censorship. In the 1940s and 50s, a young Peter Hall directed the UK premieres of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Eugene O'Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra and Jean Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors. Other notable UK or world premieres have included Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Tennessee WilliamsSuddenly Last Summer. From 1966 to 1988, following a short-lived inaugural capital venture for the RSC, the Unicorn Children’s Theatre set up residence at the Arts.

In 2000, after a period of darkness and a £250,000 renovation of the front-of-house bar and café (funded by the theatre management), the Arts became a member of the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), thereby classifying it as a West End theatre, and hosted productions including Another Country, Gagarin Way, Closer to Heaven, The Vagina Monologues, Happy Days, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, Hurricane, Caroline O'Connor’s Award-winning Bombshells, the RSC’s Tynan with Corin Redgrave, Fully Committed and Toby Young’s How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.

In recent years, it has struggled financially and artistically. In 2005, it shuts its doors when then-director Edward Snape halted programming following disputes over upkeep with the previous landlords (See News, 1 Jul 2005). It reopened a year later under the current management (See News, 27 Jul 2006).

- by Terri Paddock

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