I love going backstage in theatres to see how they function, and I enjoy learning about the theatres I like to visit. I booked onto a tour of the Almeida Theatre in Islington one Saturday morning, in order to learn more about it.
The tour began in the foyer: at first I was somewhat disconcerted as I thought that all the people sitting there were waiting for the tour, however I soon worked out that this was actually the dayseat queue for 1984. In fact there were only three of us on the tour: apparently, because it had gone on sale so late (earlier in the same week), it had proved much less popular than usual. One lady was from Germany and said that she flies over to London every weekend to see a show – that puts my so-called theatre obsession to shame!
Inside the auditorium, we learned about the history of the building. It dates from 1837 – the year Queen Victoria came to the throne – and was originally built for the Islington Literary and Scientific Society. It was used for a variety of purposes including concerts, balls, lectures and meetings, until it was sold to the Salvation Army in 1890. In 1955 the SA left and the building served as a factory for Beck’s British Carnival Novelties for a brief time until the Lebanese-born theatre director Pierre Audi bought it in 1972 (the year it was listed Grade II by English Heritage). After a campaign to renovate the building, it opened as a theatre in 1980.
After nearly 20 successful years, during which the theatre grew in stature and reputation, particularly under the joint Artistic Directorship of Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent, the building was closed for repairs funded by the Arts Council. Work began in 2001 and the theatre reopened in 2003 with Michael Attenborough as the Artistic Director. He left in 2013, and the current AD is Rupert Goold.
I really like the theatre auditorium – it is intimate and comfortable – and it was interesting to see it from the stage, where the layout and the balcony architecture could be appreciated. The set for 1984 was laid out, and having seen the production it was fascinating to see how it worked from the stage angle. We came off the stage and went underneath to see where the lighting and other technical equipment is stored; I enjoyed hearing about past productions and stars who have graced the Almeida stage, including Ralph Fiennes, Kevin Spacey and Juliette Binoche.
Backstage, I enjoyed seeing the dressing rooms and the green room, which are all actually in the basement. This seems like a lovely area to spend time in – I think if I was an actor I would be quite happy to be here!
On a final, positive note, our helpful guide remarked that when the refurbishment works were being done, the theatre and the architects made a concerted effort to install more female toilets. Apparently, architects love symmetry so they usually make the male and female toilet spaces the same size – as any woman will tell you, this is crazy as it inevitably results in massive queues for the ladies’. Apparently, the higher number of female toilets has had a positive impact on the shows themselves: audience members return to their seats more quickly in the interval, and are less likely to leave the auditorium in the middle of the show in order to go to the loo. On reflection, I rarely experience huge queues at the Almeida, and this must be why. If only other theatres would follow their lead!
Altogether, a really enjoyable experience. Tours are only £7 so go ahead and book!