Build it and they will come, so the saying goes.
But will they?
It was a question posed by the former National Theatre Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner and his Producer Nick Starr as they planned to open London’s first commercial theatre in 80 years. They needn’t have worried.
Since the Bridge Theatre opened in October 2017 it has received an exciting response, say the pair. “The big initial question was: ‘will people come to a theatre next to Tower Bridge’. We found the answer to that. Yes they will. It’s very good news,” says Hytner.
The 900-seat theatre, which sits next to City Hall and overlooks Potters Fields Park, has spectacular views of Tower Bridge. It sits within Berkeley Homes’ One Tower Bridge development alongside a cluster of restaurants including The Ivy and the Coal Shed.
It wasn’t a hard choice to pick the riverside venue as the home for their London Theatre Company to commission and produce new shows.
“We looked all over London but when we came here we knew that it would take some beating,” explains Starr, who left the National Theatre in 2014 followed by Hytner in 2015.
“We started our search three years ago. Southwark Council had told the developers (Berkeley Homes) that they needed to include a cultural centre so we put forward a proposal for a theatre.”
The impressive exterior is echoed inside. A light and airy foyer welcomes visitors and leads to the auditorium, which was designed to respond to shows with different formats, among them end-stage, thrust-stage and promenade.
“The stage is flexible so the seats can be removed. You can do so much inside and for a theatre of this scale it’s so unique,” enthuses Starr.
So what can audiences expect?
The Bridge will present four or five new productions year-round as well as intimate gigs and conversations on food, fashion, politics and science. Recent highlights include an evening with artist Grayson Perry and author Catherine Mayer.
“Our agenda is really simple – it is to programme work that we’re really proud of and sell as many tickets as possible and you wouldn’t get that policy from any of the big theatres. They would tell you how they need to reflect society and allow the nation to examine themselves, which is great. But we just want to put on really good plays that will reach a wide and diverse group of people. We are making a big statement with our programme.”
Their latest production, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, is directed by Hytner and stars David Calder, Michelle Fairley, David Morrissey and Ben Whishaw.
It’s a bold and slick staging, which sees the audience thrown into the heart of the action. The two hour, interval-free production is impressive. Hytner bravely tackles Shakespeare’s history play making use of the auditorium’s flexible, modular design. Plinths rise from the ground, actors weave through the crowd and explosions fill the auditorium. The immersive nature of the show captures the excitement of being part of a mob.
“I’ve not done a show where the action erupts out of the floor,” says Hytner.
“The kind of shows that I had seen that made me think this was possible were the Punchdrunk shows. You know the audiences will do what they’re told if you tell them in the right way.”
Hytner has witnessed successful productions at the National Theatre including The History Boys, War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and One Man, Two Guvnors.
“I love going back to the National. I watch most things and I am really enjoying what I have seen,” says Hytner.
“Every now and again we hope to have a hit that will have another life,” adds Starr.
“it’s the ones that are a bit unusual
that hit the spot
“If you directly look for it, it doesn’t happen but it’s the ones that are a bit unusual that hit the spot. The obvious example is War Horse. We didn’t think it would be an international hit – in fact I thought it would be the opposite of that,” he laughs.
The future looks bright – what next?
“We are looking at another venue at the moment for our next venture,” reveals Starr.
“The London theatre audience is 25 per cent bigger than at the beginning of the century, it’s a real growth so we could do with more theatres. We’re looking at somewhere smaller but with the same kind of versatility and design of auditorium as The Bridge.”
Hytner chimes in: “Look out for plenty more great shows to come!”