Andrew Lloyd Webber backs portable theatre-in-the-round (all it needs is a plug socket)


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The Independent Culture

Andrew Lloyd Webber may be at home in the glamorous surroundings of the West End stage, but his charitable foundation is backing a portable theatre that will bring exciting new work to locations from village halls to car parks across Britain. All it needs is a plug socket.

The Roundabout auditorium, which is the brainchild of theatre company Paines Plough, is the first ever self-contained portable theatre-in-the-round and it aims to reinvigorate theatre in regions that have little access to the best new writing. 

Lord Lloyd Webber hopes the foundation’s involvement will bring in a wave of donations from others who have made millions in the West End to help reinvigorate grassroots theatre. 

Paines Plough, dubbed the UK’s national theatre of new plays, will mark its 40th anniversary next year and is expected to mark the celebration by touring the venue. The 111-seat venue can be put together and dismantled again in a matter of hours by just two people. It stands five metres high and 10 metres square.

The venture was made possible by a one-off donation of £150,000 made by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation. Madeleine Lloyd Webber, who is on the board of trustees, said: “It’s a way of tipping our hat to the regional theatres and saying it’s extremely important as a foundation to theatre in this country.” Lord Lloyd Webber is not on the board of trustees but is “thrilled by this project”.

Yet, she warned: “We haven’t got unlimited funds we can’t plug the gap of the Arts Council funding or lack of funding on our own. If we donate, hopefully it will encourage other foundations and individuals to do the same.” She added: “We are trying to encourage theatrical millionaires to help out a bit.”

George Perrin, joint artistic director at Paines Plough said supporting local theatre was “more important for the big successful theatre makers than the public realises. We have to articulate to the Government and funders that you need this grassroots, small scale operations in order to support the next big scale work. We’re in danger of letting that grassroots work dry up.”

“If we can get people interested in theatre it will be amazing. There will be a kid somewhere in Greenock or somewhere, who will see a play in one of these little touring theatres and it will change their life,” she added. The Roundabout could be set up in a range of locations including existing theatres, leisure centres, warehouses and car parks.

Mr Perrin said: “That idea was of the circus coming to town and being in a space that feels owned by the community. We wanted to do it on a small scale so it’s intimate and all the focus is on the writing and acting, not on big production.”

The company last year built a prototype of the auditorium out of wood, and took it to the Sheffield Theatres and Shoreditch Town Hall.

“Touring used to be the bread and butter of British theatre alongside rep; the idea of touring was how actors learnt their trade and made theatres feel more rock n roll,” Mr Perrin said. “It’s now very challenging. Making it work in places like Luton is hard because you’re very reliant on existing infrastructure that is being gradually dismantled and decimated. If you live in Luton you should have the same access to high quality new writing as if you lived in Sloane Square, but you don’t.”

Paines Plough was set up in 1974 over a pint of bitter in The Plough pub, and has brought through new work by writers including Abi Morgan, Mark Ravenhill and Mike Bartlett. Mr Perrin described the Roundabout as a “game changer” adding: “It gives us our own theatre, which we’ve never had before.”