For a theatre that attracts Hollywood's A-List and tours the world, a derelict bus depot in London's notorious King's Cross seems an unlikely new home. But with its latest production starring Anna Friel and Alan Howard, the Almeida is hoping -literally- to make a drama out of a crisis.
Taking Chekhov to Moscow, luring Kevin Spacey for The Iceman Cometh, transforming Hitchcock's old Gainsborough Studios into a setting for Shakespeare: in the past few years, London's tiny fringe venue, the Almeida, has pretty much sewn up the market in theatrical daring and ambition. But its latest venture is arguably its boldest, and riskiest, yet. Last week, the lights went down for the final time at the Almeida Theatre's beautiful but dilapidated 1837 Islington home while it undergoes a £4.2m part-Lottery-funded 14-month refurbishment. In two weeks, the lights go up at a new, if temporary Almeida Theatre, created out of a Thirties bus garage in the very insalubrious environs of King's Cross, haunt of the lowest rung of London's drug dealers and prostitutes. The opening show at King's Cross, aptly, is Frank Wedekind's 1898 German classic, Lulu, the story of a woman whom men, and (take note) women, lust after and die for, and who passes from Berlin to Paris high society, only to end up on the streets of London selling the only thing she has left, her body.
Taking the title role (and following in the illustrious and daunting footsteps of previous Almeida stars Diana Rigg, Cate Blanchert, Juliette Binoche, Ralph Fiennes, et al) is 24-year-old Anna Friel, who first found fame as the poor, elfin Beth in Brookside, the one who murdered her dad, buried him under the patio - and, to top it all, snogged a girl. Friel is candid about what is expected of her, and what she expects of herself. As Rochdale's most famous daughter tells me later when we meet during rehearsals, "It's massive, it's frightening. I've had to train myself not to waste precious energy worrying about it."
But it's not just Friel who has a lot at stake. The Almeida must lure an audience far from the comforts of polenta and Pouilly Fuisse. Meanwhile, Steve Tompkins, the new theatre's architect, is all too aware that comparisons will inevitably be drawn with what he did so brilliantly with the Gainsborough. Let the drama begin......
22 December: dearlng the site "A neurotic, f*cked-up, sexy play in a neurotic, f*cked-up, sexy area," is how a beaming Steve Tompkins, of architects Haworth Tompkins, describes the new King's Cross Almeida when we meet on site for the first time. The area, a stone's throw from King's Cross station, would tax even the most optimistic of estate agents. Entering the site, one passes, on one side, Tony's Natural Foods and Remedies, where you may purchase "organic, wheat-free, vegan lentil burgers" and, on the other, the intriguingly named Bleu Danube sex shop where you may sell or exchange your adult videos. And then what's that doorway, through which a spectrally thin and skimpily dressed woman has just passed on this freezing December day, followed minutes later by a man who, if not a pimp, certainly dresses like one ...
As we enter the jumble of interconnected warehouses, we dodge the first tranche of workmen, who are busy laying on basic services like electricity and plumbing. Cost is a key issue: there is a mere £850,000 to play with £240,000 of it "regeneration money" from the government-funded King's Cross Partnership. As Tompkins admits, "There isn't cash for 'more than adequate' in any department." This means walls, for example, will remain as rough-hewn as they are now, even if the damp is dealt with. Furnishings and fittings 'will be recycled from the Gainsborough, and the roof and some of the exterior wall will be turfed, or rather covered with sedum, a cheap, low-maintenance, long-lasting succulent plant, which changes colours with the seasons and, for Tompkins, "provides insulation and stops the rain drumming on the roof". The only other significant and noticeable "design" elements will be a "light-emitting" exterior staircase in GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic) and, in the large bar area, "a plane of quite dim pendant lights just above eye level", which are being specially created by design group 6a.
At this stage, it's hard to visualise Tompkins' plans, or quite share his enthusiasm, given how grim it all looks now~ Most of the space is still being used as a brick warehouse (of which more later). Previous incarnations have included a classic-car showroom and a bus depot: remnants of the latter remain in the odd platform sign and a large, empty diesel storage tank. Although Tompkins insists the space is "fairly yielding", with a natural public entrance and stage and scenery door at the back, it is far from conventional. The plan is for two spaces, the main 500-seat auditorium and a smaller, flexible 300-seat one. The main space, however, is relatively shallow and wide - at 25m, very wide. "It goes against the conventional wisdom," admits Tompkins. "It's quite cinematographic, panoramic. It will be interesting to see how designers and directors work with it.
17 January: LuIu rehearsals begin - I meet Jonathan Kent in the bar of the old Almeida, where the staff apologise for the fact that the heating has, yet again, broken down, which perhaps explains why only a handful of locals are sampling their modish lunchtime menu. As well as being the theatre's joint artistic director, with Ian McDiarmid - and all the work which that entails - Kent is also directing Lulu. The expat South American and former actor first met Dundee-born McDiarmid (the evil Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars) in the Seventies at the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow. The two have worked together on and off ever since, for the last 10 years at the Almeida.
"I've started with Anna - we've got the first week together - then it's the full company of 18," he tells me between mouthfuls of spinach soup. I almost say, "Oh, you should have brought her along," but one quickly senses how protective Kent is of his actors, particularly the more famous ones. It's something that crops up again and again when actors and writers talk about their experience at the theatre. "The Almeida allows stars to step off the celebrity treadmill," according to Edward Albee, who premiered his Play About the Baby at the theatre two years ago.
Kent is extremely excited about the production of Lulu, and about it premiering in King's Cross. Originally, the Almeida had planned to take over the Old Vic during the refurbishment, but Kent believes the new venue will be more appropriate and interesting, both for LuIu and the whole season, which also includes a production of King Lear, the rarely performed Platonov by Chekhov, and a new work by film-maker Neil LaBute. "It makes sense to do Lulu in King's Cross," says Kent. "If Lulu had come to London now as a prostitute she would have gone to King's Cross, and we're acknowledging that. And there's something wonderful about doing Chekhov, never mind LuIu, in a place like that - it's like the grit in an oyster, there's a frisson to it which is interesting." Kent's version of LuIu is based on a new reworking and amalgamation by Nicholas Wright of the original two Lulu plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box, plus other, related writings. "Basically, LuIu was a wank fantasy for Wedekind," says Kent. "He wrote plays, he wrote poems, cabaret sketches, songs, he was driven by his obsession. What Nick has done is go to all the source material and construct a coherent play which looks not just at sex but at desire and lust and also hypocrisy. I'm absolutely confident about the version, and I'm absolutely confident about the actors - it's just whether I f*ck up or not."
31 January: Back on site - So what's happening in a certain building in King's Cross? The site is now overrun with workmen and engineers and lifting equipment. Donning our hard hats, assistant project director Ros Brooke-Taylor guides me round, assuring me that, despite the appearance of chaos and confusion, everything is moving ahead very nicely, "just as long as we keep on schedule". The "major architectural intervention", as Tompkins had put it on our first visit, was always going to be the fire exits, and indeed these have now taken shape - breeze-block defined corridors which run the perimeter of the auditoria. In fact, meeting fire and environmental health regulations is one of Brooke-Taylor's constant headaches. The bar area, it turns out, will not be able to serve hot food after all because Camden Council's regulations would require a prohibitively expensive ventilation system. So it will be sandwiches and soup - they're allowed a microwave.
The main stage is now in place, or at least its 550sq m concrete base is: it will eventually be levelled with a layer of cement slurry, then finished in plywood and hardboard. And the green room and changing rooms, reworkings of existing admin offices, are also taking shape. Well, two of the changing rooms are. One still has that diesel tank in it: the walls were evidently built around it, and it will have to be dismantled on site. And then there's those bricks. No sign of them in the main space. But that's because they've been moved into the second space. Apparently "the brick man" is still waiting to sign on the dotted line for his new warehouse, and time is marching on ...
2 February: the regeneration game - So what do the neighbours think of all this feverish activity in their midst? The area badly needs the Almeida to succeed. Chloe Neild, who lives next door to the new Almeida, has her share of horror stories to tell, although she concedes that the situation has improved recently, thanks, she believes, to a police crackdown called Operation Reigus, which began just before Christmas (although the operation has since ended).
"I used to have a lot of problems with dealers and prostitutes in my basement area," she says. "Sometimes, when I'd come home from work, I'd go down the steps and there'd be someone with a needle stuck in their arm, or a woman with a client." In the past, the abandoned bus station itself has been a magnet for such activity "It used to be absolutely dreadful," says Neild. "One day my nephew ran in the back and I ran in after him - I counted well over two-dozen needles, and human faeces and condoms, in there." Hopefully such experiences will soon become just an unpleasant memory. The area would seem to be on the verge of radical change. By 2007, the high-speed Channel Tunnel rail link will have reached St Pancras, the station immediately adjacent to King's Cross, and that in turn will finally release 50 acres of long-abandoned former railway lands, a prime central London development site potentially on the scale of the Docklands. Anyway, back to the show.
5 February: rehearsals - Three weeks to go. Rehearsals have now moved from Islington to the old Shoreditch Town Hall in east London. During a break for lunch, I talk both to Friel and co-star Alan Howard, a veteran of Almeida productions. It is evident that Friel was initially somewhat overawed by this, only her second stage outing. "At first I said to myself: how the hell can I be this amazing woman who men die for? I'm not that. And I thought: Friel, go on, act. And I've gradually become more confident, even with the likes of Alan Howard. Before, I thought: oh my god, he's this big grandiose stage actor, but actually he's wonderful, they're all wonderful, and we're all totally on the same level, it's just about putting the work in really, it's exhausting."
In Lulu, Howard plays Schoning, the man who discovers a destitute Lulu as a child in Germany, and transforms her into the woman who captivates and destroys so many others before eventually destroying herself. "It's got the Pygmalion/Galatea thing," explains Howard. "He has made her, but he also uses her. They have this extraordinary symbiotic relationship, and when he is gone, the centre can no longer hold and the story spins out of control until Lulu meets her end."
The play is by no means naturalistic. Wedekind drew on circus, cabaret, music, use of colour and gesture to try to create a new and radical expressionistic kind of theatre. Which calls for a special style of acting. "It's a mountainously difficult piece," says Howard. Friel agrees, and highlights potential pitfalls: "You can have a conversation and it can sound quite normal, then you can play the same conversation again and it can sound really heightened, it's like you're entering this world and you don't quite know what it is or where it is. We try everything lots of different ways until we find the right way."
Both Friel and Howard think the story still has resonance, a hundred years on. "I still get shocked," says Friel, "and sometimes we giggle and wonder how some of the audiences will handle it - like when they see someone who's meant to be my father with his hand on my crotch. Not that Lulu is played to shock. There's no blatant nakedness or sex scenes to get bums on seats, that's not what the Almeida is about."
I ask both, finally, about how rehearsals are going. Tellingly, Howard, sounding far the more relaxed of the two, simply says, "I think it's jolly good so far, it seems to stand up." Friel is rather more expansive. "I thought six weeks' rehearsals was fantastic at first, it was like, all that time to rehearse. Now we've only got a few weeks left, and I think I'm going to need another six weeks after that." She admits that stage is "much more testing and challenging for an actress" than film, adding, "With film, it takes millions of hours to make and then suddenly, six months later, you've got the perfect performance up there on the screen. With theatre, you've got to hit every single note, every time, particularly with this part because it's such a whirlwind journey, and if you don't hit the right note, the whole play can go wrong.
9 February: finalising the set - Designer Rob Howell talks to me on a crackly mobile line from the workshops on the Old Kent Road in south London, where finishing touches are being made to the set. He had originally designed Lulu for the Old Vic, and the change of venue to King's Cross meant a complete rethink. "The approach and solution to the ideas is very different," he says. "King's Cross isn't a traditional working theatre, I can't bring things in through the floor, I can't fly them in from up above, I have to travel and work laterally." His solution to the width of the stage is, in effect, to close it down, containing most of the action (most of which is intimate two- and three-handers) centrally in what he describes as "a sort of glass box"
"We have to help the audience to focus down to a believable relationship between people and architecture," he says. The Almeida production of LuIu moves not only from country to country, but through time starting roughly in the Twenties, and ending in modern day London, which meant a raft of costume and set changes. "At the Old Vic" he points out, "we'd have been using scenic effects to give us contemporary London, whereas what's great about King's Cross is that we've got contemporary London for free. By the end we will have stripped away all the scenic elements to reveal the identity of the coach station we're in. We're hoping the audience will get one of the points we're trying to make about the story, that - even though it's a hundred years old - nothing has changed. King's Cross today is still full of Lulus."
13 February: the theatre finally takes shape - "Wow." Photographer Philip Sinden's superlative does not seem misplaced. Making our final visit before our own pressing journalistic deadline, what was once a derelict dump has suddenly revealed itself as London's newest, and most interesting theatre space. Not that it isn't still a bit of a mess. On this occasion, the main contractor, Ashe Construction, is doing the honours for us in the shape of commercial director Andrew Morris and site foreman Phil Williams. The latter, as Morris earnestly tells me on arrival, has been "living it every day".
"Initially we assessed the job as 17 weeks," Morris tells me. "They said: you've got seven. And it wasn't like we had a lead in. It was: Right, you start Monday. It's a case of the whole team mixing it and matching it, you don't have any leeway. It's quite an achievement that we've got this far."
"It's tight but everybody's working flat out," adds Williams. "The craic on the site is fantastic. The guys are just crashing through the work." And, no doubt, clocking up the overtime: the operation is already seven days a week; by the end they'll be working 12, possibly more, hours a day.
The main seating rake is now in place, and corridors and public areas are virtually complete. The more cosmetic and furnishing elements are also appearing. Bar fittings are piled on the floor, covered in dust, again recycled from the Gainsborough, and on the wall behind the bar are test squares of different shades of yellow and lime green. Ros Brooke-Taylor reappears and explains how the green-painted walls will be used in combination with mirrored wallpaper and the pendant lighting to maximise the sense of spaciousness. The interior colour scheme continues with - indeed, is inspired by - the sedum, but it is also seen in the exterior staircase, which will be lit in green, and in the Almeida signage, which will be a greeny-yellow neon. The overall effect a bit lurid, I suggest. "No, no, not at all," insists Brooke-Taylor, "nice and spring-like."
And, erm, the second space? You've got access to that now, you've got rid of the mountain of bricks? Er, no. "It's a nightmare," chips in Williams. "The bricks are still there. They were looking to tie it up last night, but even when they've signed all the legal stuff, the brick man's not got enough men to move his stuff out. We'll have to muck in and help him out, just to get rid of him... But it's all good fun."
16 February: a footnote - It's every actor's nightmare, and although it does give everyone, actors included, a precious extra week, the price is high: Anna Friel trips and tears a ligament. "On doctor's advice, we've postponed the opening by a week," is the word from the press office as they frantically rearrange schedules. Her ankle strapped up and in considerable pain, Friel presses on with rehearsals. "It should be all right," says the Almeida, "but it's a very physical part." The words "Break a leg" never sounded more horribly apt.
The Independent Magazine, 24.2.01