A pink neon sign glows beneath a light-studded ceiling in the new entrance lobby of the National Youth Theatre, bringing a touch of Broadway glamour to the Holloway Road. Projecting out on to the pavement, occupying what was once a grotty car park on this busy London street, the new pavilion provides a suitably theatrical welcome to the revamped home for the institution – which had been all but invisible until now.
“Even one of the local councillors didn’t know we were here,” says the NYT’s artistic director, Paul Roseby. “Our sign was hidden behind the trees, the front door was always closed and people were shuffled in through a side entrance into a miserable lift lobby. Everything about the place was unwelcoming.”
After a £4m makeover, led by architects DSDHA, it’s now impossible to miss it. Clad in glossy green glazed bricks, oozing the jovial civic air of a Victorian pub, the new structure houses a community studio right on the street, with big shop windows giving passersby a glimpse of the action inside. “All we’re missing is a Hollywood-style Walk of Fame,” says Roseby. “One day I hope we’ll have stars in the pavement between here and the Odeon.”
They would have enough names to pave the entire street. De Helen Mirren y Ben Kingsley a Orlando Bloom y Zawe Ashton, the NYT has provided a start for some of Britain’s biggest acting names. Fundado en 1956, the charity moved to its current home in the 1980s, occupying a former mission hall built in 1872. Designed as a robust brick warehouse-cum-palazzo, fronted with Romanesque arched windows, the building served as a cinema and furniture store before being taken over by the educational charity. But it never had a proper theatre space to show off the young members’ talent, having been carved up into awkward rooms over the years.
“We tried to put on some compromised productions before,” says Roseby, “but there were too many columns everywhere and we didn’t have a front of house area. It just felt embarrassing to bring people here.”
Now he is brimming with pride as he shows off the revamped headquarters. In a process of strategic surgery, the architects have removed walls, swept away columns and inserted big picture windows, creating views between the different spaces in this newly minted “creative production house”. The budget has been used judiciously, spent on transforming the once column-choked ground floor into a new 200-seat workshop theatre and separate rehearsal space by inserting big steel trusses overhead, without erasing the rough and ready character of the building. The remodelled spaces retain their raw workshop feel, with pre-existing spray-painted breeze block walls and scuffed stage floors marked with the patina of performance. They are complemented by new rooms lined with plywood, polished concrete floors and exposed electrical ductwork, giving a theatrical back-of-house air. It’s a neutral backdrop that creates a place pregnant with the possibility of learning by doing.
With courses ranging from performing Shakespeare to comedy and improvisation, and from costume and lighting to stage management and directing (many now available online through the recently launched Hub for £2 a month), the NYT is conceived as an entire theatrical ecosystem for 11-to-25-year-olds to find their footing and meet future collaborators – as well as rub shoulders with the pros. The project costs were covered by £2m from the mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund, match-funded by the Kirby Laing Foundation, but a hefty chunk of the charity’s operating budget comes from renting out its spaces for West End productions to rehearse. The redevelopment has vastly increased the amount of area for commercial hire, without impinging on courses for its members.
On my visit, rehearsals for a new touring production of Chicago are in full swing upstairs, the costume shelves brimming with bowler hats as high-heeled dancers perform improbable gymnastic feats. Other cast members attempt to master their American accents in a lofty studio space next door. Abajo, a class of kids stand in a circle chanting “a bit of better butter will make my batter better”, while a leadership course for teenagers is underway in the street-facing studio. It is this mix of the amateur and pro that makes the place buzz. Roseby says a new “social contract” with the visiting West End companies will see NYT members receive free tickets to their shows and access to observe confidential rehearsals. The new facilities also mean that performances and workshops can be recorded and streamed to schools across the country, while the building’s physical accessibility has been dramatically increased too. Along with level access, wide doorways and lifts, there are swish new gender-neutral loos that include an impressively equipped Changing Places toilet for people with disabilities. Forthcoming phases of work will see a new basement archive space, digital recording suites and hot-desks for early career creatives, along with improvements to the street outside.
As state schools have seen drama provision decimated in recent years, y the future of post-pandemic theatre hangs in the balance, the revamped NYT stands as a beacon of optimism for the next generation of dramatic talent, on-stage and off. Now to start fundraising for the Holloway Boulevard Walk of Fame …