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Centre stage

The refurbishment of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre represents a summer season of 20-hour-a-day work implementing the first phase of a development plan. Deadlines were tight and met just moments before, a few weeks ago, the theatre's first performance - Baby Doll by Tennessee Williams. Pawson Williams Architects spent four hours negotiating with the fire officer just before curtain up - including worrying moments standing in total darkness while demonstrating the emergency lighting.

The refurbished theatre is a dream scaled down, yet an imaginative facelift with possibilities for further transformation. This is 'Phase One', though implementation of the rest of the masterplan is still uncertain. The original plan was to knock down Graham Winteringham's 1971 frontage and replace it with a glass facade. This was to enclose a 300-seater auditorium for new plays and to create a front of house area that would supersede the existing 'mall'.

The theatre is Birmingham's best known venue for twentieth-century drama and stands on the corner of Centenary Square with the Symphony Hall and the International Conference Centre. Variously refurbished over the years, with the 1990 addition of a conference centre and theatre workshops, in 1996 the theatre started applying for grants for a major renewal scheme. By the time the application had got funding the era of enormous lottery grants had come to an end and the £23 million masterplan was reduced to a £7 million refurbishment of the auditorium and stage areas, with some work on the front of house.

On entering the theatre, one finds that the central semicircular gathering area below the auditorium has been 'cleansed'; false ceilings have been removed as have yellow column casings. The entrance is now an airy mall. The light sweep of the concrete underbelly has been echoed in a new, floating ceiling which disguises the ring beam. The new informal seating area is simple and attractive with black leather banquettes spaciously sandwiched between low, stylish, cubic beech information desks. The £100,000 spent on the mall will have the most immediate affect on the audience, giving an art gallery-style openness to the entrance and heightening expectations of the theatre space and performance that lies ahead.

The entry into the top of the auditorium used to be vertigo-inducing, with steep aisles descending dizzyingly immediately below the doors. The light beech stairs of the aisles now enclose the seating on either side of the auditorium, creating a single, visually satisfying seating area. The refurbishment has resulted in the loss of 20 seats but the remaining 824 reconfigured seats have better views of the stage and some of the best positions in the house can now be sold rather than being squandered as aisles. Towards the front of the house the tones of the solid-blue sidewall darken to match the dark mystery of the stage. Large acoustic boards act as a decorative sculptural relief. They are based on sensitive mathematical calculations, and, set into the sidewalls halfway up the auditorium, are emphasised by a lighter tone of blue.

Looking up at the auditorium from the stage the impression is of graciously curvaceous richness. The rich green-black leather-covered seats curve gently down towards the centre of the rows; the beech backs emphasise the shape, rising at the ends of middle rows to act as informal guards for wheelchair users in the space of detachable chairs. Sitting in the audience, the luxuriousness of the space becomes apparent: you can pass seated neighbours and sit comfortably stretching your legs and enjoying the sensuous, robust leather.

The whole auditorium was stripped to a shell and rebuilt with new air conditioning and acoustics. The encircling shape of the sidewalls seems natural to the theatre yet it is only the back line that is original. Pawson Williams has built the wall out so the audience can be encompassed in the dramatic human embrace of an actor on stage. Up to 3m in depth at the back of the auditorium, the walls also house services including air- handling chambers which calm and quieten the air before it is cleverly released under every seat (see Working Detail, page 38).

Equal attention has been paid to the stage. It is hard to see what has been done yet the floor has been completely rebuilt, a flat, sturdy stage replacing the previous rickety structure that was held up by hired scaffolding. One of the largest in Britain, at 405m2, the stage has the reputation of unintentionally losing actors - it will now be able to do so as a deliberate theatrical effect. The floor is broken down into traps every 1.2m so actors can disappear (or appear) just about anywhere. Lighting positions have also been overhauled, with additional wiring in the technical ceiling.

The extended length of Pawson Williams' association with the theatre disguises the speed at which work was accomplished. Confirmation of funding came through in March 1999 and the team immediately started work to enable it to take advantage of the 'dark' period in the summer when theatres traditionally take a maintenance break. Working solidly seven days a week, the contractors have gone in and out in twelve weeks - an impressive feat for such a large arts project. The desire to retain audience loyalty, creative energy and a sense of presence in the city persuaded the theatre board that the additional costs were justified.

Whether the theatre has the tenacity to fight for funding for further phases remains to be seen. You can see where the money ran out; the crazy patterns of carpets in the older area and bright green wc doors contrast unfavourably with the beech and stainless-steel finishes of the refurbishment. Removing the cafe paraphernalia cluttering the view into the building and continuing to open up the space in the front of house would make a big difference, but the unevenness of the conference extension may be harder to resolve.

Although Pawson Williams' original vision has been reduced, the sense of a vibrant, professional public space has been achieved. A balance has been made between the existing building and a reinterpretative vision: Winteringham's surviving concrete colonnades facing onto Centenary Square have an elegance about them that contrasts with the mass of the exterior of the fly tower set behind them. Pawson Williams' intervention has transformed much of the fabric of the theatre's interior. A little further work, on areas not covered by phase one, would realise the vision of the whole building.

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