A tiny new state-of-the-art theatre seeking to capture the “rebellious” spirit of London’s Soho is to open in the building where alternative comedians Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson ran amok in the 1980s.
The Boulevard theatre started out as a sister venue to the Raymond Revuebar striptease club in Walker’s Court, a seedy alley at the end of Berwick Street market in central London. It opened opposite the Revuebar and was part of the empire of porn baron Paul Raymond, one of Britain’s richest men. As well as staging drama, the Boulevard became the riotous home of the Comic Strip group of comedians – which included Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders – before they burst on to TV screens and enjoyed solo success. At the end of the 80s it was used for Eddie Izzard’s Raging Bull comedy club.
On Tuesday, plans for a new Boulevard theatre at the same location were unveiled by Raymond’s granddaughter, Fawn James, the director of the property company Raymond created, Soho Estates. The shabby remaining shops around Walker’s Court may still offer a well-thumbed selection of “vintage” 80s erotica but the Boulevard is a smart new hi-tech theatre. This intimate, circular space features a fully revolving auditorium and balcony, allowing it to be significantly reconfigured for different productions.
James began planning the theatre’s rebirth 10 years ago, while it was trading as the French Pussycat Club. In 2014 planning permission was granted to fully regenerate Walker’s Court, part of Soho’s rapid gentrification.
The Boulevard’s new artistic director is Rachel Edwards, the founder of Tooting Arts Club. Edwards met James when her site-specific version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, originally staged in a Tooting pie-and-mash shop, transferred to the West End. The pair collaborated on a staging of Barrie Keeffe’s Barbarians at the former Central Saint Martin’s School of Art building on Charing Cross Road, also part of Soho Estates’ portfolio.
The Boulevard will have a seating capacity of 165 and offer theatre, comedy, cabaret, film and live music. Edwards and James were adamant that their new enterprise wouldn’t just be a “black box” space. VR technology was used to conceptualise the design by architects Soda Studio and theatre consultancy Charcoalblue. The venue makes impressive use of natural light, contains its own rehearsal space, and will offer a bar and restaurant that aims to promote plant-based cuisine. Various levels of membership will be available.
“What an amazing opportunity, what a fantastic challenge – not in the least bit daunting of course,” said Edwards with a laugh as she introduced the space. She believes Soho is “all things to all people but essentially it is eclectic, culturally diverse, rebellious, innovative and really knows how to have a really good time”. Her intention is for the Boulevard to be both informal and playful. Four theatre shows will be produced in-house each year and there will be a late-night programme running from Wednesday to Saturday. She is keen to nurture emerging writers and suggested that every sixth production would be a new commission.
The Boulevard will open to the public in the autumn with a season of work that is yet to be announced. The theatre’s box office will be located directly opposite the performance space, with visitors accessing the auditorium via a stylish glass bridge. It will be quite a contrast to the club’s appearance in the 80s. “One of the oddest things,” says Alexei Sayle of that time, “is that we shared the venue with Raymond’s Festival of Erotica.” It felt “very demi-monde. The bouncers said they sent anybody smelling of beer to us and anybody smelling of aftershave to the strip show.”