An eclectic throng of celebrities descended on Victoria this week for the press night of Sandi Toksvig's Bully Boy which is the opening salvo at the St James Theatre, the venue that is billing itself as “the first newly built theatre complex in central London for thirty years.”
It's a slightly tendentious claim and might come as a surprise to the management at Soho Theatre whose tailor-made premises in Dean Street opened in 2000 and which likewise encompasses a main auditorium and studio space and is designed to act as a powerful social hub.
Admittedly, the latter was a conversion, whereas the St James Theatre – which by a nice irony is the neighbour of a pub called the Phoenix – has literally risen from the ashes of the old Westminster Theatre.
My initial impressions of the place are mixed. The venue's sleek and somewhat boutique ambience in the foyer, bar and upper-level brasserie (to which you ascend via an imposing, specially-commissioned marble staircase) seems to be aimed at the smart crowd rather than at the public who would benefit most from the kind of Off-Broadway-style culture the theatre has set out to foster. And while you have to admire the courage of embarking on an unfunded operation in the current economic climate, the ticket prices (a premium of £55 for its upcoming musical Daddy Long Legs) don't exactly throb with the spirit of inclusiveness.
On the other hand, the main auditorium with its steep rake of just over three hundred wine-coloured seats has a genuinely inviting atmosphere and manages to feel much more intimate than the vertigo-inducing Trafalgar Studio 1 which is similarly configured. It is of course far too early to pronounce on the theatre's identity which will emerge through its programming and its choice of producing partners and when the 100-seat studio space is up and running with comedy, cabaret and jazz.
But for its debut show, the new St James reveals a sure instinct in joining forces with Northampton's Royal and Derngate for Sandi Toksvig's Bully Boy which, despite some awkward lurches of tone, is a surprisingly caustic and compassionate look at the terrible mental toll of war.
A Falklands vet is sent out to investigate a young Burnley squaddie suspected of gross misconduct in Iraq. In Patrick Sandford's powerful production, their rocky progress towards a mutual appreciation of shared trauma is beautifully traced by Anthony Andrews and exciting newcomer Joshua Miles.
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