Boulevard theatre, London's new Soho venue, announces first shows

A “novel in dramatic form” by Cormac McCarthy, a revival of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect and dramas directed by Kathy Burke and Yaël Farber have been announced for the inaugural season at London’s Boulevard theatre. The cutting-edge new venue is part of a £40m redevelopment of Walker’s Court, the none-too-salubrious Soho alley once dominated by “world centre of erotic entertainment” the Raymond Revuebar.

The Boulevard takes its name from a former sister venue to the striptease club, which was part of porn baron Paul Raymond’s empire. As well as staging drama, the original Boulevard became a beer-soaked home to the Comic Strip group of comedians. The stylish new theatre opens to the public later this month with Ghost Quartet, a haunting song cycle by the American composer Dave Malloy, who had a recent Broadway hit with Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

‘This first season is about exploring what’s possible’ …Artistic director Rachel Edwards. Photograph: Ellie Kurttz

Rehearsals for Ghost Quartet are currently under way in the building. Meanwhile, the restaurant walls have been freshly painted pink, the piano is newly installed in the bar and a layer of lace has been laid within the glass bridge that connects the theatre to its box office across the alley and also offers theatregoers a colourful view up bustling Berwick Street market. “Endless” conversations about the theatre’s seating have resulted in a handsome assemblage of freestanding chairs, currently dotted around a revolvable stage. “The challenge was to find something beautiful … yet stackable,” says artistic director Rachel Edwards, looking down at her new home from the balcony, which is itself revolvable.

The intimate Boulevard, with a seating capacity of 165, is “my ideal size of theatre” says Edwards, who hopes that the many configurations possible in this tiny but super-flexible new space means audiences will be surprised each time they arrive. Ghost Quartet will be presented in-the-round, with some audience members sharing a lowered inner circle of the stage with the cast of four. Due to its size, most Boulevard shows will have fewer than half a dozen actors, says Edwards. The Cavalcaders, a play by Billy Roche to be directed by Kathy Burke, has a cast of six, the largest in the opening season. “It feels like we’re doing 42nd Street,” she laughs.

Edwards says Ghost Quartet is a fitting opener because “at its heart it’s about what stories are, how we tell them and receive them. Opening the building with a celebration of storytelling is quite lovely.” Its use of song was also appealing: “There’s something naturally celebratory about music.” The next production, also a London premiere, will be The Sunset Limited by novelist Cormac McCarthy. Published in 2006, the same year as McCarthy’s Pulitzer prizewinner The Road, the play is an existential two-hander styled as “a novel in dramatic form”. It is set in the New York tenement home of a former convict called Black who has saved a professor, White, from leaping off a subway platform. Terry Johnson will direct the production.

The Raymond Revuebar, now closed, in Walker’s Court, Soho.

The Raymond Revuebar, now closed, in Walker’s Court, Soho. Photograph: Robert Harding Picture Library L/Alamy

The Effect, Lucy Prebble’s play about love and neuroscience, is to be directed by the “wildly inventive” Anthony Neilson. Another heavyweight director, Yaël Farber, will stage Hello and Goodbye by fellow South African Athol Fugard, the latest in a rush of recent Fugard revivals in London. Burke’s production of The Cavalcaders, about an Irish barbershop quartet, will be followed by the Boulevard’s first commissioned play, to be written by Northern Irish playwright Abbie Spallen. Edwards calls Spallen “unsentimental, very funny, super smart” and suggests the new piece will reflect the position of Northern Ireland in today’s turbulent political climate.

The cheapest ticket in the Boulevard’s theatre season is £12 and the most expensive is £36. The venue will also offer late-night comedy, cabaret and live music including jazz and classical. “This first season is about exploring what’s possible,” says Edwards. “The building is going to reveal to us quite quickly what works and what doesn’t.” It has been difficult to plan a programme of work without a finished building to stage it in, she says, but then Edwards has “never programmed anything in a theatre until this point”. As the founder of the site-specific theatre company Tooting Arts Club, she scored a huge hit with a version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which opened in a real pie-and-mash shop in south London then transferred to the West End and New York.

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