Drama, dance and recording studios, wardrobe and scenery workshops, music practice rooms, a film and TV studio, a 50-seat cinema, even a “digital playspace”: the new Reuben Foundation Wing of the Lyric Hammersmith, unveiled to the public this month, has it all. The £20 million project to turn the Lyric into “the South Bank of west London”, not to mention the greenest theatre in the capital, will provide a home for a vastly expanded programme of work with young people, as well as office space for partner companies. The Lyric’s new era, complete with specially commissioned art works from David Batchelor and Richard Wentworth, begins with a production of Bugsy Malone, directed by artistic director Sean Holmes.
The Lyric has long struck observers as a series of tensions, not always co-existing happily. In the Seventies its auditorium, designed by Victorian theatre architect Frank Matcham, was transposed into a concrete structure on top of King’s Mall shopping centre; it’s an unlikely pairing. Holmes, 45, is clear that they didn’t want to touch the “faded grandeur” of the Matcham interior.
“The interesting thing about the Lyric is that the auditorium is a 19th-century hierarchical space, representative of a society that graded people, but it’s inside a Seventies concrete box, which is a very democratic space. Partly because of the work we programme and partly because of the work we do with young people, our audience is younger and more diverse than some. On a good day the audience goes into our space — and they feel very at home in it.”
What, I wonder, will be the impact of the building project, masterminded by the Lyric’s executive director Jessica Hepburn, on the theatre’s work? In the short-to-mid term, says Holmes, who has been at the helm since 2009, there will be no difference. “We’ll continue to do a broad and eclectic programme: some work is very challenging, some is very populist and some is in between.” Further forward, however, some of the emerging artists nurtured in the new wing may find their way onto the main stage. “It’s important to say that we’re not going to become a youth theatre. We’re going to stay a leading producing theatre,” says Holmes, firmly.
Man of the people: the Lyric’s artistic director Sean Holmes (Picture: Matt Writtle)
The issue of diversity in the theatre is increasingly under the microscope and Holmes hopes the improved opportunities offered by the Lyric’s expansion will bear fruit. “If we get this right, in 10 or 15 years’ time there will be people in different roles in British theatre who hopefully would have had their introduction here.” The Lyric’s youth work has long been a core part of its ethos and this made the choice of Bugsy Malone, Alan Parker’s 1976 film musical about Prohibition-era America featuring child actors, a “no brainer” for Holmes. The show, with its three different casts of performers aged nine to 19, begins previews on Saturday.
Just as the Lyric’s mix of architectural styles has led to puzzlement, there has also been uncertainty about its place in the theatre ecology. The straight-talking Holmes is robust on the issue. “We have to make work of size and ambition, because we’re bigger than most subsidised theatres in London,” he says. “We have 550 seats, and that’s a lot to sell … We want all people to come here, but we have to be defiantly local, city-wide and national.” He pauses. “We do provocative, challenging work on a large scale to a young and diverse audience who are maybe looking for something different from the mainstream.”
The provocations, however, haven’t just been confined to the stage. Holmes isn’t averse to stirring up a bit of controversy, not least with his opinion-splitting Secret Theatre project. During a seven-play span that saw new writing mingled with some wild reimaginings of classic work, Secret Theatre caused much critical harrumphing, not least because the play titles weren’t released in advance and reviewers were requested not to spoil the surprise. He launched the endeavour with a punchy speech bemoaning the commercial imperatives which prevail over our theatre culture and said in an interview that “a lot of theatre is quite boring”. Does he stand by that? “I slightly regret that interview now,” he says reflectively. “I think maybe a better way of framing it is that nothing can be more boring than bad theatre. Secret Theatre was made with a glorious punk and adolescent energy that we were going to change everything, which is really good but also impossible.”
The Secret Theatre company will return in 2016 for two plays, including Joel Horwood’s Afghanistan-set farce A Stab in the Dark, but before then there is the prospect of Lyndsey Turner directing Laura “Posh” Wade’s new adaptation of Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters’s novel about lesbian love in Victorian London.
How, I ask Holmes, who is married to a former theatrical agent and has three sons, does he see British theatre at the moment? “I think there’s a growing dissatisfaction with what we all do and we want to challenge ourselves and work in more interesting ways,” he says. “There’s a generation coming through who, if they get it right, will take the best of British tradition, which is narrative clarity and respect for the writer, and marry that with bolder, braver staging, worlds, delivery, ideas.” He cites the ongoing success of War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples. “Things that were seemingly avant-garde and experimental have just become the mainstream. So that means audiences are really hungry for those things.”
It’s almost time for Holmes to return to rehearsals. Any closing thoughts? “Theatre has to be important because it’s the place where we can see ourselves,” he says. “The reason bad art is so boring is because it shows us a lie.”