Edifice complex at the Coliseum

Does the Coliseum really need to move - or, dare one ask, is it motivated by Lottery fever, and envy of the Royal Opera House?
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The Independent Online
And so the English National Opera wants to abandon its beautiful turn-of-the-century central London theatre, where it has produced so many stunning productions, for a purpose-built building in the kind of place most people try hard to avoid: King's Cross, for example, or the Hungerford car park.

The gut reaction of the ENO board was to stay put. Indeed, only five years ago they were begging to do so, with the help of pounds 12.8m of taxpayers' money. Having got their cash, they have now, after a year-long feasibility study, changed their minds. But this merely highlights the risk of throwing money at consultants if the exercise serves to cloud basic common sense - which says that if you happen to own one of London's best theatrical sites, surrounded by a plethora of bars and restaurants, Tubes and other amenities, why on earth move to one of the capital's wastelands?

Yesterday, at an uneasy press conference, the movers and shakers of the company attempted to explain why it was impossible to stay at the Coliseum. Statistics were cited, technical problems rehearsed. The sewage that overflowed in heavy rain and froze in frost; the problems of moving scenery in the narrow surrounding streets; Westminster council's new, hard-line attitude to moving scenery at night; the poor facilities backstage; the collapsing wiring, heating and decor; the lack of storage space and rehearsal rooms.

This is all true. But it is also true that ENO has operated successfully from the Coliseum for almost 30 years, putting on acclaimed productions such as Nicholas Hytner's Xerxes and David Alden's Tristan and Isolde, while offering convenience and accessibility for its loyal audience, more than 60 per cent of whom come from outside London.

This is one of the key points. While keen opera-goers will no doubt be prepared to make the foray past the streetwalkers and winos of King's Cross, if ENO does insist on moving there, it will hardly be the enticing prospect of going to central London, knowing that there is a huge choice of attractive, lively places to meet, eat and drink before or afterwards.

What the company is banking on is that audiences will not decline, in the prime new building in their socially-challenged location: that market research shows that people care more about acoustics and music than atmosphere and amenities. The trouble is, the board of the ENO is almost certainly wrong.

And it may be dangerously wrong about something else too: that the public will back their scheme for applying for pounds 60m to pounds 90m of lottery money to build them a splendid new auditorium - or possibly two - when they have a perfectly good theatre already, let alone give cash to match the 25 per cent funding they will need.

This is certainly David Mellor's view. Mellor, widely acknowledged to have been the most informed and able heritage secretary of recent years, could not contain his fury about the plan yesterday. He said in a statement that it was "an outrageous breach of faith for the ENO to abandon the Coliseum only five years after going down on bended knee to the Government to be asked to be given the freehold of the theatre".

The Coliseum was a terrific theatre with great acoustics and splendid sight lines, he said. "And frankly, to give them money for a new house when they cannot successfully manage a splendid old one would be grist to the mill for all those who think too much Lottery money is being tipped down the drain."

What is the alternative? Well, the ENO will tell you that there isn't one, but that is not entirely true. The best alternative, as they will privately concede, would be to expand its present site to rectify the most critical of its problems: the lack of storage for sets, currently held overnight in Kent, and the absence of rehearsal rooms.

This is not an easy thing to do, but it is not impossible, if Westminster City Council is willing to help, along with the heritage agencies (the 1904 Coliseum is Grade II*). One option, which would immediately help, would be to rationalise the company's split sites.

A major ENO complaint is that their transport staff are forced to drive up and down from Kent every day to store the sets. The chorus has to rehearse in Hampstead, the orchestra in Hackney, and the singers down the road from the theatre in the Friends' Meeting House. Perhaps it would have been better to spend the pounds 1.38m lavished on the 300-page feasibility study on an all-out blitz to find a multi-purpose space somewhere near to the Leicester Square area.

There are other options, too. One of the main constraints of the Coliseum is that the stage is 14ft below street level, which requires that scenery has to be wheeled up a 28-degree ramp twice daily. What about putting lottery money into a lift, to ease the pressure on backstage staff?

Nor does it appear wholly impossible to expand the theatre's site - which, at an estimated cost of pounds 100m, is likely to prove cheaper than building a new theatre in the wasteland of King's Cross or Bankside.

It emerged yesterday that the company had held discussions with Westminster City Council about expanding sideways into Mays Court, the pedestrianised road that runs along the left side of the Coliseum as you face the entrance. This would give the theatre perhaps 100ft more space, enough to solve the most critical problems of rehearsal space and set storage.

Another option, which the company has not fully explored, would be to buy the adjacent flats belonging to the Peabody Trust in order to expand backstage; and incidentally end the problem of late night operations inconveniencing tenants.

It might also solve another previously unforeseen problem: the "edifice complex" induced by the lavish funds of the lottery. Could the ENO's determination to acquire a state-of-the-art new theatre be anything to do with the upgrading of the Royal Opera House along the road? Or, as one observer suggested yesterday, a case of having eyes bigger than their brains?