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The Old Vic Tunnels are to close after three years of theatrical innovation

  • @MrNickClark

Since 2009, thousands have flocked to the Old Vic Tunnels, a cult venue discovered by chance beneath Waterloo station, which has hosted successful gallery shows, performances by award winning actors and even a former US president.

Yet the site, designed to interest the “Facebook, two-minute-video generation,” is to bring down the shutters after three years.

Hamish Jenkinson, the director of the Tunnels, said: “We have decided to draw our innovative project at the Tunnels to a close.”

The Old Vic, which was the principal backer, has shifted the funding to concentrate on its principal operation. The news provoked dismay among fans, who took to Facebook and Twitter to express their sadness.

Tom Copley, a member of the London Assembly who is leading an investigation into how small theatres in the capital can remain viable, said: “It’s a dreadful shame that the Tunnels are closing. It’s a unique venue and has become well known.  This is quite a bad sign; will it be a precursor for small venues being under threat?”

The project, which had Old Vic artistic director Kevin Spacey on board from the start, launched with a temporary event staged in the 25,000 square metres of disused tunnels in 2009.

The first show was a theatrical production by the interactive theatre company Punchdrunk. Tunnel 228, a reference to British Rail’s name for the tunnels, saw 20,000 tickets booked in six hours.

“Since then, the Tunnels earned a reputation as one of the most creative spaces in London,” Mr Jenkinson said.

A source close to the organisation said the space was “always meant to be temporary” and added: “The Old Vic want to return their focus to the main house.”

It was the backdrop to a variety of events. These included a Michelin Star pop-up restaurant, as well as exhibitions put on by gallery owner Steve Lazarides, screenings of Banksy’s movie Exit Through the Gift Shop, and a performance of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner performed by Fiona Shaw. It was also used as the venue for a fundraiser for Bill Clinton.

“We have three great years to look back on, and are proud of the remarkable range of events and productions we have presented in the space,” Mr Jenkinson said.

He discovered the venue after he was invited to view a graffiti art showing a tunnel nearby. When looking for the toilet he stumbled upon a door and “kicked it down”. He found a space, which he described as a “forgotten urban landscape” which had been abandoned for 20 years. He described the three years as a “success story”.

This comes at an increasingly tough time for smaller venues in London and around the country. Mr Copley’s investigation into the challenges facing small venues, on behalf of the London Assembly’s economic committee kicked off this week.

He said: “Small theatres are thriving, but there are specific challenges they face.” Beyond the general economic climate, these factors include a lack of affordable rehearsal space, and the rise in heating bills.

“It is a very hand-to-mouth existence with good times and bad times. Living show-to-show leads to a lot of uncertainty. Just because they are thriving at the moment does not mean they are safe. Especially at a time when arts budgets are under threat and people feel less willing to pay for the theatre.”