While commuters will no doubt welcome the planned renovation of London Bridge Station, for local theatre Southwark Playhouse, the new development means that it will soon be losing its home.
Tucked away down a side street a few minutes’ walk from the station entrance, the venue at first glance looks to be the epitome of shabby chic. It has a cosy but slightly tatty bar, and two bare brick-walled theatre spaces set into the very arches of the railway bridge, so that their productions often have to compete with the sound of the trains and tubes as they rumble past; their website cheerily advises visitors to the smaller, untreated Vault space come prepared with a jumper to help them keep warm. Yet for all its ramshackle charm, this is venue with ambition and it has acquired a reputation for staging vibrant and exciting theatre, offering a mix of productions that wouldn’t be out of place in the West End (a recent revival of Sondheim’s Company) alongside original, challenging work by emerging companies (such as Belt Up Theatre, whose recent production The Boy James was singled out for praise by Stephen Fry.)
This is not bad going considering the space was originally meant to be just a stop gap. “We moved here almost five years ago,” explains Artistic Director Chris Smyrnios, over coffee in the bar. “Initially these were temporary premises because we had a Section 106 agreement for a development in Elephant & Castle that was due to complete in 2012. [A Section 106 is an agreement whereby, as part of a planning application, developers agree to include spaces or provision for culturally or socially beneficial services.] We had issues with our previous premises at Southwark Bridge Road and we felt Elephant & Castle was a good place – and the big thing would have been the financial benefits.”
Offered a deal with a long-term lease for a nominal rent, Southwark Playhouse would have been free to invest in its programme, with the aim of being eventually entirely self-funding. “We seemed to have the future mapped out,” Smyrnios tells me, somewhat wryly, because of course, the economy had other ideas. With the financing for the Elephant & Castle development having fallen through, the Playhouse was suddenly facing a far bleaker future: not only had its planned new home disappeared, its current one was now under threat.
The redevelopment of London Bridge is a massive one, and while few would say that it’s unnecessary, its impact will be widely felt by its neighbours. The theatre was informed by Network Rail that it had until the end of 2012 and then it would have to find another location. Rather than take this news lying down, the company has staged a spirited campaign to convince Network Rail – and the planning authorities – that a space should be provided in the new development for the theatre to set up a permanent base.
“The problem with Network Rail is it’s this huge, many headed organisation, so it’s impossible to actually get to talk to anyone,” Smyrnios explains, with the weary expression common to anyone who has dealt with British bureaucracy. “But we were very lucky. We had help from a couple of our supporters – one of whom is a local architect, the other is involved in Olympic planning delivery committee – and we worked out our strategy and put in a response to Network Rail’s planning application. We mobilised our mailing list. We’ve been lobbying the parties involved – Network Rail, Southwark Planning – trying to convince them there should be a place for us [when the development opens] in 2018.”
The reaction has so far been positive: “We broke the record for the number of responses to a planning application!” Support flowed in from “local MPs, the Arts Council and Theatres Trust – which all leant weight to our argument.” Although the consultation is finished, Smyrnios is keen to stress that people can still show their support for the theatre by responding to Network Rail’s application (you can find more details on how to do this on their website, here).