From Bugsy Malone to Tipping the Velvet, Sean Holmes, Artistic Director of Lyric Hammersmith, on what’s in store for the theatre following its £20 million renovation.
Words: Will Gore
Audiences that have been flocking to see Bugsy Malone splurge gun its way around the Lyric stage since the show opened in April have not only been able to enjoy a great night out at the theatre, but they have also had the chance to get acquainted with an extraordinary addition to the cultural life of west London. For the last two year’s the Lyric has been more or less a building site while an ambitious £20 million renovation project took place. Now the work has been completed and the Reuben Foundation Wing is well and truly open for business.
‘I don’t think there is another building in the country like this,’ says Sean Holmes, the Lyric Theatre’s artistic director, as he tells me about the array of facilities that are now at his and his team’s disposal. Adjoining the Lyric’s bar and spreading out over two floors above the Kings Mall shopping centre, this dazzling extension is made up of dance and film studios, a state of the art recording studio, a ‘digital play space’ and a huge rehearsal room. There are also music practice rooms, a sensory room for people with special needs, and a small cinema.
Sean says that these new spaces will help the Lyric improve in one of its key areas — its work with young people. ‘The new wing means we can massively expand the quality, quantity and range of work we can do with young people,’ he continues. ‘We’ve always been known for working with young people, and that’s reflected in the youth and diversity of our audience. The range of what we can do now and the diversity of artforms on offer is really new and makes us a very interesting place to be.’
The programme of events and classes already taking place includes ballet lessons, computer coding workshops, film clubs and sessions on TV presenting. Enjoying these are youngsters from local schools and colleges, as well as members of the Lyric’s Young Company (anyone under 25 can join for just £10).
Along with the addition of the Reuben Foundation Wing, Sean talks me through the improvements that have also been made to the original part of the Lyric. The 19th century auditorium has remained untouched, but the building has been made more energy efficient and eco-friendly, while the bar and restaurant facilities have been greatly improved. All of this work has been made possible by money from central government, the local authority, the Arts council, and other individual donors, and Holmes pays tribute to the Lyric’s executive director, Jessica Hepburn, who he says has been the driving force behind the entire project.
Of course, the Reuben Foundation Wing will grab plenty of attention with all of the amazing opportunities it affords visitors to the theatre, but Holmes is also very much focused on making sure that the Lyric continues to be known for the excellence of the shows it puts on its main stage. On his watch, the Lyric has developed a reputation for staging an eclectic array of productions, from the challenging and provocative Secret Theatre programme that took place while the renovation work was underway, to more populist fare such as Bugsy Malone. The two major upcoming productions, Tipping the Velvet, an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel which explores lesbianism in Victorian London, and the annual pantomime — this year its Cinderella — will again showcase the Lyric’s bold approach to programming.
‘Tipping the Velvet is potentially a controversial area in terms of its frankness about sexuality, but the form of the show will be very music hall and popular,’ explains Sean. ‘We had to put the opening back because of the building works but that allowed us to really develop the play and develop ideas. Director Lindsey Turner and writer Laura Wade worked together on Posh and have been great. They have come up with a brilliant pop art Victoriana concept, it’s of the period but its now slavishly stuck in it. They’ll use contemporary songs in a music hall style and there will be live music, too.’
And what about the pantomime? Inspired by the Hackney Empire’s renowned festive extravaganza, Sean established the Lyric’s own panto not long after taking over. He’s delighted that it has now become a mainstay of the theatre’s calendar: ‘We use proper actors, not people off the telly, and we get really good writers. I’m proud of it and it always feels like a really Lyric kind of show.’
He adds that the way the audience for the pantomime has built over the years proves that people in the locality and beyond have truly connected with the theatre. And, thanks to the magnificent Reuben Foundation Wing, Sean is looking forward to the Lyric connecting with even more people in the months and years to come.
For more information about the Lyric Theatre and the Reuben Foundation Wing, visit lyric.co.uk