Hold tight! Woolwich’s refurbished Tramshed is starting its new journey

Tramshed Woolwich
The Tramshed was originally a generating station for London’s tram network

Over the years, acts from Harry Enfield to Dire Straits and Squeeze have performed at the Tramshed. Now Woolwich’s much-loved arts centre has reopened its doors after a three-year refurbishment. NIKKI SPENCER took a look around.

On a rainy Monday evening, walking into the brightly-lit foyer and café area of Tramshed feels like a stark contrast to my memories of the dark and dingy industrial space I used to visit for comedy nights back in the 1980s.

I’m greeted warmly by Bethan Tomlinson, the executive director, who is clearly very excited to see the building open to the public again and delighted to be able to show me around the new high-spec, accessible venue.

Tramshed Woolwich
A 153-seat auditorium is at the heart of the new-look Tramshed

She describes the Tramshed, which now includes a 153-seat auditorium, two studios and media suite as an “urban village hall”. It will be used by theatre, music and performing arts groups to the Caribbean Social Forum, Oxleas mental health services, Greenwich Dance and many more.

The Tramshed’s refurbishment is the first phase of a major development of the block on Woolwich New Road, which will feature a brand new leisure centre next door to the Tramshed – replacing the Waterfront – along with over 500 new homes.

The Grade II-listed building, built in 1916, was indeed a tramshed, though not to store trams, but to generate the power for the local tram system, which it did until the last trams ran in 1952.

Tramshed main auditorium looking from the stage
The main auditorium is flexible so it can be used as rehearsal space

In 1971, the founder of Greenwich Theatre, Ewan Hooper, opened the Greenwich Young People’s Theatre in an old church in nearby Burrage Road. While setting the group up, he discovered the disused tramshed and suggested to Greenwich Council that it be used as an arts venue.

The cabaret and comedy night Fundation took over the Tramshed in the 1970s. Among those who made their names there were comics Gareth Hale and Norman Pace, who met when they were doing teacher training at Avery Hill College. Other acts included Julian Clary – as The Joan Collins Fan Club – and Harry Enfield.

In 2009, what had become the Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre moved into the Tramshed building. A decade later, the charity changed its name to Tramshed.

Tramshed Woolwich foyer
Tramshed will be open to the public as well as those taking part in its programmes

Events this month include Tramtastic Club Night, a supportive club night for adults with learning differences and disabilities, on Thursday, and Comedy at Tramshed this Friday with comedians including Rob Auton and Kai Samra.

My tour of the building starts with the impressive auditorium which spans two floors and has seats that retract against the wall at the press of a button to make it a multi-purpose space.

On the day I visit it’s being used for rehearsals by Tramshed’s Reach theatre group, for young adults with additional needs. From the first floor balcony we take a quick peek inside as a young man with an amazing voice is belting out a song to rehearse for their opening night celebrations. So many people wanted to come that the celebrations were spread over two nights, last Thursday and Friday.

Bethan shows me around the state-of-the art sound and light gallery, which, like the whole building, is wheelchair accessible, and a media suite which will be used for the acclaimed In2Music programme led by Mobo-nominated grime artist Capo Lee. The free sessions are an opportunity for young people aged 13-18 to learn about all aspects of music production, from writing lyrics to recording.

There is also a studio where Greenwich Dance runs classes for 13-18 year olds.

The Tramshed will form part of the new Woolwich Leisure Centre complex

Downstairs there are changing rooms and toilets and another studio, which is used regularly by Rose Bruford College for its Contemporary Theatre Performance course, which is run by Dr Marisa Carnesky.

Marisa puts on a programme of talks by leading people in the theatre industry and past guests have included Tarek Iskander, the artistic director and chief executive of Battersea Arts Centre, and the performer, writer and artist Emma Frankland.

“They are organised for the students, but they are also open to the public for free,” says Bethan.

The studio has a brick “feature” wall which was part of the original exterior of the building. “We have kept as much of the architectural details as we can,” she says, adding that you can still see the original steel girders in the auditorium, and there are tiles that have been restored in the foyer.

At the rear of the Tramshed there is also a workshop for building props and sets. Forthcoming theatre productions include All Roads by the acclaimed Greenwich-based playwright Roy Williams, which will run between 9-11 March. Tramshed is also working with Blackheath Halls on a community opera, Ignatius, which will take place in Greenwich Park in June.

Bethan says that it has been quite emotional watching Tramshed come to life again, especially after the pandemic. “The feeling of seeing people having a lovely time here is magical.”

And she believes that the opening of Woolwich Works last year and the arrival of the Elizabeth Line, along with Woolwich recently being named as one of the London mayor’s night time enterprise zones, have well and truly put the area on the map.

“It’s a really exciting time for Woolwich,” she says.

Jeremy James on stage
Welcome aboard: Jeremy James, Tramshed’s artistic director and chief executive, welcomes visitors to its opening night celebration last Thursday

Since the reopening, lots of people have been coming in to look around and share their stories of the Tramshed’s rich and varied history.

“The other day a group of guys walked in. Sadly they were in Woolwich for a funeral, but they were reliving all the good times they had together seeing bands here,” she says.

“We knew about people like Dire Straits and Squeeze playing here but the building has a great history as a jazz and folk venue too.”

“It does make you think what an incredible facilitator Ewan Hooper was. He was a visionary who wanted to bring arts and entertainment opportunities to everyone, and it feels wonderful to be continuing that legacy.”

Tramshed is at 51-53 Woolwich New Road SE18 6ES, and is open to the public on weekdays from 10am to 7pm and Saturdays from 10am to 5.30pm, as well as for events. Full details of their performances, programmes and venue hire can be found at tramshed.org or call 020 8854 1316.

NIKKI SPENCER is a freelance journalist who has also written for The Guardian, The Independent, Lewisham Ledger and Peckham Peculiar.

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