Why the Roundhouse is unique

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A new book by Michael Coveney, with photography by Peter Dazeley, tells the story of 46 of the capital’s theatres


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Roundhouse creative circle. Photo: Peter Dazeley
The Roundhouse, known as the Round House prior to a spectacular £30 million redevelopment twenty years ago, has had as many lives as the proverbial cat: engine shed, gin warehouse, left-wing arts centre, rock venue, avant-garde theatre, outpost of the Proms (the BBC’s annual classical musical festival), dance house and educational facility, some of these functions rolling promiscuously into each other.

But there are two clear historical phases: mid-nineteenth century to closure in 1983, and a new dawn in 1996 thanks to the intervention of entrepreneur Torquil Norman, founder of Bluebird Toys, who purchased the place from Camden Council for £6.5 million as part of his children and young people’s charity.

The common feature to both eras, apart from the iconic circular architecture, is the idea of social and scientific facility, from the new steam engines to the underground warren of workshops, recording studios and computer stations. After the 1983 closure, performances were sporadic and new plans uninspired. Money was raised and spent on a new roof designed by Richard Rodgers.

The venue’s iconic circular architecture. Photo: Peter Dazeley
Then, in 1996, when Torquil Norman put his cards on the table, a new trust was formed to raise funds for the rebuild and restoration. In a new climate of arts sponsorship, funding partners fell over themselves to join in; they were the Arts Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the London Development Agency, the Department for Education and Skills, and the Foundation for Sport and the Arts.

Everyone, it seemed, was fired up by an affection for the Roundhouse as a building and as a renewed cultural hub and agency. The roof was sand-blasted and sound-proofed to a hundred decibels. The ash pits where the engines were repaired were dug out, the tunnels restored, the underground vaults and passages re-rendered.

Over the past ten years, apart from the influx of broadcasting, music-making, digital mixing and circus skills courses in the underground labyrinth, involving local schools and ‘difficult’ students from the Pupil Referral Unit, there have been 4,000 performances and ticket sales of £3 million.

Aside from the rock concerts, which are as popular as ever, the performance side of things has drifted more into circus, poetry, and spoken sound rather than theatre. But one of the endearing characteristics of the gloriously informal Roundhouse is that you never really know what is going to happen next.

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This is an edited extract from London Theatres (£30), by Michael Coveney and Peter Dazeley, published by Frances Lincoln, available here.

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