This building was little more than a shell last time I was here: a cavernous space with light piercing the pitched roof, a thick crust of dust and loops of worm-white cables hanging from the ceiling like jungle creepers.
At the start of the year Southwark Playhouse was obliged to leave its atmospheric former home under the arches at London Bridge to make way for Network Rail’s redevelopment of the station. The Playhouse’s new home is a former warehouse on Newington Causeway, just north of Elephant and Castle, which when finished, will house two performances spaces, alongside a cafÃ© bar, an onsite rehearsal space, and better dressing room facilities.
Behind a battered chipboard door, though the dust remains, the building is beginning to look a little more theatre-like and a little less warehouse-like than it did. The space has been carved into two studios, a boxed-in 120-seater called the Little and a bigger more versatile, high-ceilinged space called the Large.
It’s in the latter the Playhouse will be staging their first production in their new home in May with Tanzi Libre, the first major London revival of Claire Luckham’s 1980 play, Trafford Tanzi. Artistic Director Chris Smyrnios wanted to stage something bold and exciting to celebrate the opening of the new venue and to really show what the space was capable of – as a result, their first production will see a full-size professional wrestling ring erected within the theatre. The name of the play (which changes depending on in which city it is being performed) now makes reference the Mexican Lucha Libre style of wrestling, which the production will showcase. On the day I visit, he is holding wrestling auditions.
There’s a large Latin American community in Elephant and Castle and Smyrnios wants to stage work that appeals to and engages with this community. To this end they are also setting up a free ticket scheme for their opening production for Southwark residents. “It’s about getting people into the building,” Smyrnios explains, an act of reaching out and connecting with a new audience, making the community aware of the theatre’s presence and what it offers.
At the end of May, the venue’s smaller studio, The Little, will also open, playing host to the London premiere of the Fringe First-winning show, Juana in a Million, a one-woman play about the immigrant experience by the Mexican writer-performer Vicky Araico Casa.
The building still has a way to go. There are chairs piled high in what will be the bar, corridors filled with bales of insulation, ladders, planks and an abundance of dust; the space throbs with the sound of drilling, with builders banging and cranking, but the space is changing rapidly and Symrnios is confident the building will be ready for the grand unveiling in May.
Photos by Natasha Tripney