The Old Rep in Birmingham’s Station Street was the country’s first purpose-built repertory theatre, opening in 1913. However, it was a small building and a striking new theatre, designed by Graham Winteringham, opened in October 1971. The company continued there until January 2011 when it closed to enable the new Library of Birmingham to be built on land adjacent to the theatre. Since then, the Rep has put on productions in a variety of venues around the city, including its previous home, the Old Rep.
And now the refurbished theatre is to reopen on 3rd September, and our regional editor, Selwyn Knight, has had a sneak preview of the new building.
The Front of House area has been stripped back in line with Winteringham’s original vision. Not only has The REP’s iconic façade been cleaned and restored, but the refurbishment also makes the theatre far more welcoming for visitors with remodelled bars, restaurant and foyers making it a space people can enjoy throughout the day. There have been major upgrades to the public areas, with double the amount of toilets aiming to reduce queues during intervals, a new free public access Wi-Fi and digital displays front of house providing a wealth of information. The re-development also makes the theatre fully accessible to everyone for the first time – whether visitors, performers or staff. A customer lift enables access to all floors of the auditorium, while a new backstage lift enables access to rehearsal rooms and offices. A new digital radio system provides an improved experience for theatre-goers who are hearing or visually impaired and a glass, sound-proofed booth has been installed in the main house for audio-described performances.
However, it is backstage that the most radical changes have been made. Dutch architects Mecanoo’s new backstage and administration block provides modern useable space for the theatre and its clean, bright, minimalist architectural theme complements the existing building. The overwhelming impression is of space and light – the new areas have been designed to allow the maximum natural light in. It’s difficult to imagine how everything has been fitted in – one rehearsal room alone is the size of the main house stage. The building is now more efficient too: the glazing at the front of the theatre has been upgraded to make it much more thermally efficient; a combined heat and power plant situated in the basement of the theatre, and shared with the Library, provides electricity and hot and chilled water to the whole of the building making it more energy efficient; the house lights in the main auditorium have been replaced with LED lights, reducing heat and saving money while low energy light bulbs are now used in all public spaces and backstage areas. And for the first time the 816 seat HOUSE and 140 seat DOOR have air cooling.
The refurbishment has included the creation of a new 300-seat auditorium, The STUDIO, and extended public foyer, both of which connect the theatre to the newly-built Library of Birmingham. With vibrant red seats and warm walnut walls, The STUDIO is a flexible and adaptable venue that sits at the heart of the two cultural organisations.
The REP reopens on September 3rd with a full season of work including Alan Bennett’s People starring Sian Phillips and Brigit Forsyth, new productions of Twelve Angry Men starring Martin Shaw and Tartuffe starring Mark Williams plus the world premieres of Soweto Kinch’s The Legend of Mike Smith and Kate Tempest’s Hopelessly Devoted and much more. For more information, including booking details, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk or call 0121 236 4455
Pictures: Craig Holmes