Stirling Prize 2014: Haworth Tompkins is no stranger to theatre projects but, with its first permanent new-build venue, it has created something more resolved, even monumental, writes Ellis Woodman
August and September represent the one hiatus in its otherwise year-round production programme, but to visit the Everyman Theatre (AJ 28.03.14) last month was still to encounter a building buzzing with activity. The bar was doing a brisk lunchtime trade, costume and set-making departments were working at full tilt and in the main rehearsal space the first run-through was under way of Bright Phoenix, a new play penned by long-time Everyman collaborator Jeff Young.
Shifting back and forth between time frames, it depicts the lives of a gang of oddball local kids and their growth into damaged but still rebellious adults. With its working-class Merseyside setting and carnivalesque staging, it is precisely the kind of work around which the Everyman has built its substantial local following.
The new auditorium replicates the unusually wide stage and intimate distribution of seating that distinguished its predecessor, but represents a considerably more adaptable space. For Bright Phoenix the stage is being reconfigured as a diagonal thrust with hoists employed to lift actors off the ground. The character and technical capacity of this space is also much on the mind of another playwright, Lizzie Nunnery, who is tasked with delivering an adaptation of Georgina Harding’s novel, The Solitude of Thomas Cave, for production there next year. ‘So often as a writer you are being asked to make work for studio spaces,’ she says, ‘but there is not a studio space in the building. The big stage communicates a confidence in new writing. You can begin to think about having an actor disappear through the floor, or a scene in which it snows.’
As she develops her play, Nunnery is making regular use of the Everyman’s writers’ room. ‘I work at home too, but the life of a writer can be isolating so it is inspiring to be in a space where there are rehearsals going on next door and you can have conversations,’ she says.
This space is located above the main foyer - a relationship that occupants can choose to make more explicit by retracting a large internal shutter. This is one of a number of features that serve to charge the public areas with their own sense of theatricality. During my visit, preparations were under way for an event that was set to exploit that character to the full. In celebration of the centenary of director Joan Littlewood’s birth on 4 October, it transformed the Everyman into a one-day version of Littlewood and Cedric Price’s legendary Fun Palace. With a focus on participatory activity, the programme included a playwright taking fast-turnaround commissions in the lift, a choir performing to the street from the first-floor balcony and experiments with nitrous oxide drinks behind the bar. They even installed a karaoke shower cubicle in a cupboard behind the box office.
Haworth Tompkins has undertaken more than a dozen theatre projects since winning the Royal Court commission 20 years ago, but the Everyman represents its first permanent new-build venue. Perhaps inevitably, the lightness and improvisatory quality that has characterised its refurbishments has here given way to something more resolved and even at times monumental.
However, as the Fun Palace project suggests, the building retains a strong commitment to blurring the distinction between the space of the auditorium and that of the street and ultimately between the status of performer and audience member. Even out of season, the building radiates the shared belief of its architect and client that a vital theatre space is one deeply implicated in the life of the city.
Everyman Theatre by Haworth Tompkins