The campaign is on to save the Woolwich Grand Theatre, which faces demolition after being open for less than two years. But it’s not the only arts venue in the area with a shadow on the horizon, with concerns being raised over the long-term future of Greenwich Theatre too.
While the news about Woolwich Grand Theatre has come as a shock to many, the site has been earmarked for redevelopment by the council for some time. The freeholder, Thirty Eight Wellington Street Ltd, is in administration.
The original Woolwich Grand Theatre opened in 1900, but later became a cinema before being demolished in 1939. The current building opened in 1955 as the Regal Cinema, later becoming the ABC Woolwich before closing in 1982. It was used on and off as a nightclub until 2008.
Woolwich Grand Theatre founder Adrian Green gained planning permission to use it as an arts venue in 2011, opening the doors at the beginning of 2012.
While the building still requires a lot of work on it (£630,000-worth, according to the developer) the main auditorium has been used for concerts and films, while a smaller space upstairs has been used for plays and other events.
Local politicians have been keen to associate themselves with the theatre – it’s being used a lot for events in the campaign to be the Labour candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich – but Greenwich Council’s backing has only been lukewarm.
In July this year, a report for housing cabinet member Steve Offord showed the Grand Theatre site as having “development potential”.
This appeared to be bit of a smack in the face for Green. Six months earlier, he’d posed in a hard hat alongside council leader Chris Roberts to promote the council’s support for the Silvertown Tunnel, presumably try to get the council on board with his plans for the theatre.
In terms of planning, the council includes the Woolwich Grand Theatre as part of the Bathway Quarter. This was the old administrative heart of Woolwich, which now lies neglected. It includes the listed Old Town Hall, the former Island Site of Thames Polytechnic/ Greenwich University and the old swimming baths/ student union.
The council’s Woolwich Masterplan states: “This area has a rich character which should be preserved though sensitive residential-led refurbishment with active uses at ground floor to create a distinct urban quarter. This area has the potential to be a high quality, high-specification, loft-style place with bars, galleries and artists’ studios together with other uses such as a jazz club and creative industries such as architects’ studios.”
Now Upminster-based developer Secure Sleep wants to knock the Woolwich Grand down and build flats there instead – with no sign of any arts usage for the site whatsoever. You can see the full planning application on the Greenwich Council website.
Architect Nigel Ostime told The Stage: “The theatre doesn’t appear to be a commercially viable proposition. As such, when you’ve got a big building that has a lot of maintenance needs, it requires money breathed into it to make it work properly. Sadly, there isn’t the money to do that.
“We are proposing to demolish the building to create homes for people. There is a great need for housing in London, and this would help to fill that gap.”
No money around, eh? We’ll come back to that point later. A petition’s been launched to save the Woolwich Grand Theatre – and a decision is expected in February.
The threat to the Woolwich Grand Theatre is imminent and real. But a few miles west, there are more long-term worries about Greenwich Theatre.
Last week, Greenwich Council’s cabinet agreed plans to create a “performing arts hub” at the council-owned Greenwich Borough Hall on Royal Hill, which is currently home to Greenwich Dance Agency. However, details of the proposal have been kept secret, which the council says is due to their financial implications, while the decision has been rushed through to meet a deadline to apply for Heritage Lottery Fund money.
“As well as providing a significantly improved facility, the proposed investment will reduce maintenance costs overall helping to secure the long-term sustainability of performing arts in the borough,” the cabinet paper says – which would suggest that other venues may be closed.
“At the same time, it has not been possible to bring the proposals to Cabinet before now due to the on-going discussions with the arts organisations who will be affected and therefore it has not been possible on this occasion to provide the 28 days’ notice required for a key decision,” it adds.
Several sources say Greenwich’s long-term strategy is to move Greenwich Theatre into the Borough Hall. I’ve also been told this idea has been deferred until after 2014’s council election after objections from local councillors, although I’ve not been able to confirm this.
Indeed, tampering with Greenwich Theatre could well be electoral suicide in west Greenwich. The area’s already lost one theatre recently, after the owners of the Greenwich Playhouse theatre illegally turned the venue into a hostel, then exploited a planning loophole which left councillors taking the flak when it belatedly came before a committee this summer. (A plan for it to reopen in the Creekside development in Deptford has so far not materialised.) And plans to demolish the Trident Hall, which was also used for plays, and replace it with a hotel have also reappeared recently.
But more importantly, it’s likely that such a plan would be unworkable, considering the Borough Hall is more like a school hall than a theatre. Indeed, it would be much more suitable as a music venue than one for staging plays.
Unlike the Woolwich Grand, the council is directly involved in the fate of Greenwich Theatre. The old Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich bought the then-derelict Hippodrome Picture Palace site in 1962, planning to redevelop it.
But a local campaign resulted in its successor, the current council, leasing it to the Greenwich Theatre, which opened after rebuilding works in 1969.
Now the Crooms Hill site is believed to be in need of repairs – hence the proposal to turn the clock back 50 years and sell it, rather than fix it.
While the idea appears to have been kicked into the long grass for now, theatre fans in Greenwich should be staying vigilant about the venue’s future. There’s already talk of having Greenwich Theatre declared an asset of community value, which would put a six-month brake on any proposal to sell it. That said, it would need Greenwich Council to agree to ACV status – which would call the council’s bluff somewhat.
But the arts hub proposal reveals there is funding available for arts projects – even during this time of cuts. So with the right management, it’s clear Woolwich Grand Theatre could be saved, if the money can be raised to buy the freehold from a firm in administration, and if Greenwich Council has the political will to give campaigners time by declaring the building an asset of community value.
Furthermore, it’s worth questioning the point in having any arts hub if there’s no arts policy in place. In recent years Greenwich has pulled back from funding venues such as Blackheath Halls and Conservatoire, and has instead put cash into recurring events under the Royal Greenwich Festivals banner. The trouble with this strategy, though, is that it doesn’t leave much of a legacy once the festival’s over.
And rushing through a decision to make an arts hub in west Greenwich doesn’t really make much sense when you’re supposed to be creating a quarter of bars and “jazz clubs” over in Woolwich. Doing it all in secret doesn’t look good either – but then that’s the way Chris Roberts’ increasingly chaotic administration does things.
Perhaps the Woolwich Grand’s woes will provide a chance to step back, rethink, and come up with something clearer. I wouldn’t bank on it, though…
12.10pm update: Coincidentally, Royal Museums Greenwich is opening up a performance space in the Cutty Sark in the new year.