Everything You Need To Know About Soho Theatre Walthamstow

An Exclusive Interview  with Waltham Forest resident Alessandro Babalola, Co-Chair and Artist-in-Residence, Soho Theatre Walthamstow

Everything You Need To Know About Soho Theatre Walthamstow

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Tell us a bit about the famous Soho Theatre, Dean Street.

Bang in the creative heart of the capital, Soho Theatre is London’s most vibrant producer for new theatre, comedy and cabaret. We’re one of the UK’s busiest venues, home to a festival-style programme and a buzzing bar. By day we’re a hive of activity - writing, workshops, showcases and events. By night we put on an average of six shows per evening. Our shows are seen by around 250,000 audiences per year, at Soho Theatre in Dean Street plus at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and beyond. When Covid-19 hit, our online platform Soho Player took centre stage. We also partnered with Amazon Prime Video (UK) for a three-series deal, to bring existing and new comedy shows to audiences online. In another exciting recent development, as part of our ongoing work to bring the best Indian comedy to the UK and the best UK and international comedians to India, we appointed our first Mumbai-based comedy producer. 

Tell us about the renovation project, how did it come about and was any of the original décor saved? 

The Granada has played a very important role in the cultural life of Walthamstow. The site has been used for entertainment since 1887 and hosted one of the first film screenings in the UK. Over the years huge stars such as The Beatles, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Dusty Springfield, The Who, The Ronettes, Chuck Berry, Duke Ellington, Cilla Black and the Rolling Stones. It featured a restaurant and hosted panto at Christmas.

After the Granada cinema chain was dissolved, the venue changed ownership several times – eventually renamed as the EMD – before it was bought by a religious group and the doors closed in 2003. While they sought permission to convert it into a church, local groups including the McGuffin Film Society and Save Walthamstow Cinema led a passionate grass-roots campaign to preserve its heritage and ensure the continuation of what it was famous for – entertainment. Local residents, businesses and politicians supported the campaign and over 1,000 people attended planning meetings.

The Waltham Forest Cinema Trust was founded and, working with Soho Theatre came forward with an inspiring new vision, respecting the building’s heritage whilst reimagining its future. In 2012 Waltham Forest Council, Waltham Forest Cinema Trust, Soho Theatre and local campaigners won the decisive public inquiry which agreed that the Grade II* listed building should have a future as an entertainment venue.

In 2014 the building was sold and a small part of it reopened as Mirth, Marvel and Maud, once again allowing people to enjoy the incredible interiors and atmosphere of the foyer. At the same time, the council and Soho Theatre started work on securing its longevity. Architects, heritage consultants and funders were all consulted on how the building could reopen and have a sustainable future. The council also engaged extensively with local businesses, residents, and community groups in developing the plans for the venue, which respect the heritage and design of the much-loved Art Deco building.

In 2018, the council announced funding for the purchase and an agreement with Soho Theatre to operate it. Their £30m investment into the venue’s revival is part of the council’s London Borough of Culture 2019 legacy commitment to place culture at the heart of its communities. 

Before refurbishment work started, significant steps were taken to preserve the building’s many historic features. This included identifying historic items and setting these aside for storage or protection, and cataloguing items in situ, such as the projectors and film equipment. Fixed items such as the steps, wall coverings, decorative doors and other historic features have been protected and ornate decorative features have been skilfully repaired and restored. 

What made you take on this project?

The Granada/EMD wasn’t just any cinema, it was a Grade II* listed Art Deco ‘super cinema’, one of the finest buildings of its kind in the UK, and the only one with its original Christie organ (used in the silent movies days) still intact. The building is on the English Heritage ‘Heritage at Risk’ register in recognition of its cultural and architectural significance. Its importance is also recognised by the Heritage of London Trust and the World Monument Fund.

Soho Theatre’s Executive Director and Walthamstow resident Mark Godfrey, felt strongly that the building could be viable as an entertainment venue and so along with fellow Soho Theatre colleague James Atkinson, founded Waltham Forest Cinema Trust - a registered charity and constituted as a Buildings Preservation Trust, a proven model for restoring historic buildings. The Trust received seed funding from Waltham Forest Council and Arts Council England, supported by a number of heritage bodies, and we were in regular dialogue with the Heritage Lottery Fund, which designated Waltham Forest as one of its priority areas in 2013. The Trust’s explicit aim was to save and restore the building, and the rest as they say, is history.

What can we expect from the new theatre?

Soho Theatre Walthamstow will be a local theatre with a national profile. It will be a glorious 1,000-seat venue dedicated to UK and international comedy, theatre and cabaret, plus an annual Soho Theatre-style panto which promises to be the highlight of the festive calendar. It will be a welcoming, accessible and vibrant space, for audiences in the borough (who will have access to priority booking and discounted tickets) and also for audiences from across London and beyond. Sitting between the intimate spaces of our original venue, Soho Theatre in Dean Street, and the capital’s bigger performance arenas, it will give audiences the perfect dedicated place to see world-class shows at mid-scale, filling an important gap in London’s thriving cultural landscape. Our lively creative engagement programme has been active in Waltham Forest since 2013, connecting people of all ages and this work will continue across the borough and in our two new studios. Within the building itself they’ll be a restaurant, café and numerous bars. 

Tell us about the community activities that will be on offer.

Soho Theatre has a track record of working and collaborating with local communities. Over the past decade, we’ve established strong connections with many schools, youth, and other community groups across the borough. We run a variety of exciting programmes throughout the year. A recent example is our comedy skills summer school with Project Zero, led by our comedy associate with creative assistance from a local resident. 

The talent and enthusiasm of young people in the borough is immeasurable and we are proud to support and nurture this. Our flagship Primary Playwrights programme introduces pupils across the borough to the excitement of playwriting with a selection of plays written by Year 6s raucously performed at our venue in Dean Street. When Soho Theatre Walthamstow opens there’ll be studio spaces for community groups and local creators to use for developing their work as well as workshops, talks and heritage tours, and opportunities for local people to get involved with productions. 

This theatre is set to be a real destination outside the West End, what do you hope this will mean for East London?

Soho Theatre Walthamstow will transform the local area which for a long time lacked a major permanent cultural provision on this scale. With a programme that only Soho Theatre can bring, it will attract visitors from across London and the UK to Walthamstow, heralding a new era for this lively corner of north-east London. The new venue will massively boost the area’s evening and night-time economy, supporting existing businesses to grow and encouraging new ones to form. It will be a driver for future regeneration with the economic benefit to the area thought to be in the region of over £60m over the next 10 years, as projected in a recent impact report commissioned by the council. In addition, the social benefits will be huge, with training and employment opportunities for the local community. For example, we recently ran a pioneering trainee comedy producer scheme - a six-month, work-based learning programme and the first of its kind to teach the entry-level knowledge and skills needed in this role. Soho Theatre Walthamstow will be a place to grow, rehearse, create and inspire the stars of tomorrow. 

It’s been a long journey and we’re looking forward to opening our doors and welcoming people in.

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Estates East Team

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