The Egg, Bath
Richard York, Sightline Magazine, Summer 2006
For those who don’t know it, the Theatre Royal is a formal Victorian 900 seat theatre presenting classy touring productions without public subsidy. It occupies an entire block of Bath’s City Centre, although I don’t know if the Theatre actually owns the restaurant and pub on its flank. The south west corner of the block comprises a three storey shell originally containing St Paul’s Parish Hall which has variously been a Methodist church, a furniture warehouse and, from the 1960’s, a three screen cinema. After thirty-odd years it came under threat from a new multiplex cinema and the Theatre Royal took the opportunity to buy the space. The theatre Royal by this time has a flourishing education programme which had outgrown the Ustinov Studio, itself converted from the Theatre’s workshops when the Theatre ceased to be a producing house. In 2000 architects Haworth Tompkins were appointed as architects and two years were spent formulating a brief with the help of 12 members of the Youth Theatre. Anne Minors, who was appointed theatre consultant during this process, speaks interestingly of being interviewed by a nine-year old for the job! Construction started in 2004 and the Theatre opened, on time and on budget, in October 2005 at a cost of £3.7 million, some £250,000 of which came from Arts Council England, the remainder from the community, Theatre Royal’s own resources and from the theatre equipment industry.
The entire building was stripped back to its external walls, a basement excavated and five floors of accommodation installed. The basement contains lavatories (I couldn’t reach the wash basin – it, like much in this building, is scaled for the young) some simple working space for prop making and painting, storage and plant. The ground floor houses reception/box office, a modest café and foyer (or rumpus space might be a better description). First and second floors house stage and two levels of auditorium, third floor a technical gallery and the top floor a splendid rehearsal room and dressing rooms.
Height was a major challenge to the design team since the planners would not permit the roofline to be raised, notwithstanding that the Theatre Royal fly tower is substantially higher. The café has a sunken floor in the middle, thus enabling the egg-yolk ceiling to be lowered to accommodate a 600mm deep pit in the auditorium floor above. This makes for an interesting space and a neat separation of circulation and ad hoc performing space from tables and chairs.
The auditorium, seating 130, is a very tight horseshoe on plan with the stalls raked quite steeply (seem more later.) Side benches at stalls level and the wraparound balcony, contained within four outward raked pillars, give a extraordinary focus from the stage and, it almost goes without saying, a great intimacy. Since the seating is remarkably squashy, comfortable and trimmed with leather, the auditorium looks less like an egg and more like an elegantly gloved hand extended in welcome. The seating was the subject of much input from the youthful end of the client and samples of their ideas, some quite out of the box, were on display. One excellent and imaginative idea is that the front row is only 200mm off the floor, with succeeding rows rising in increasing increments – 300mm, 450mm and so on. Thus sightlines are preserved for everyone without consuming precious headroom and the scale is suitably childlike whilst perfectly possible for adults – a bit like sitting on a beanbag (getting up again is another matter). Front rows maybe be removed one at a time (very simple manual fixing) to extend the stage or open up the pit. The stage itself is the full width of the shell, discretely contained at the wings by the wrap around of the balcony and technical gallery. Variable stage height, a gentle rake or a flat floor and the pit are achieved by the use of lever-flex platforms supplied by Steeldeck. The back wall is the wall of the building and is pierced by four high windows which are simply shuttered off when daylight is not required. Access to the stage for scenery is by a lift in the stage floor. The sidewalls of the auditorium are a simple grp corrugated sheet and textile hangings.
The technical gallery provides access to lighting positions and to a variety of manual and powered flying sets so that young people can experience the art of flying even although the stage does not have full flying height. Lighting, sound and communications are controlled from a box a the back of gallery and everywhere is sufficiently sized to give access for wheelchairs.
One of the many great pleasures of this building is that the original fabric is displayed wherever possible, so that structural walls are revealed in all their assortment of stone, brick, rubble, timber, distressed plaster and the modern steel which was inserted to replace the original timber piers which held the place up. This gives the building a kind of gravitas which sits very comfortably with the fabricated on site, from which the auditorium and technical facilities are made. Apparently the components were all craned in before the roof went on, which must have been pretty piece of planning.
On top of the auditorium lies a large rehearsal hall with windows and a balcony overlooking the rooftops of Bath. Simple dressing rooms are here too – not very much accommodation but perhaps there are others elsewhere in the building and I missed them. Lift and stairs serve all floors – I should think vertical circulations is pretty tight on some occasions, particularly when several events are going on simultaneously.
The Theatre Royal operates the Egg as a children’s theatre with a mixture of visiting and homegrown productions for all age groups from 3 to 18, although adults are evidently welcome too. Public performances are underpinned by classes and workshops and the number of events is already measured in hundreds since the building opened in October 2005. The foyer/café is also pressed into use for music and for a ‘drop-and-shop’ programme for parents to leave their offspring in the hands of trained childminders while they do the Saturday shopping!
This is a remarkable project. Remarkable because it happened – how splendid the imagination to conceive it, the commitment to have laid the ground for it by years of youth work, the capacity to raise the money and the apparent ease with which it was realise, the fact that this a building in a real sense by children, for children, in which they can be active as well as passive participants and all without any feeling of them being patronised or of being the enablers of another box to be ticked in a politically correct society.
Earlier generations were easily seduced into the professional theatre by draughty ill-equipped civic, church and school halls, so I should think Bath will be a rich source of theatrical talent for generations to come. Chris Horseman, chief technician, who with Eugene Hilbert, General Manager, and Anne Minors showed us the Egg, remarked how satisfying it was, as the building was about to open, to see two of the original ‘consultants’ (now about to go to university) excitedly dashing around helping to get the place ready. They had been involved from the age of about twelve and had seen the project through to completion. What a wonderful, enviable, eggsperience.
Contact: Anne Minors Performance Consultants
tel 020 8877 5860