Camden’s The Roundhouse turns 10: From derelict building to world famous venue
- Credit: Stuart Leech
Ten years after the Roundhouse’s rebirth, Bridget Galton talks to artistic director Marcus Davey about the beloved venue.
This month a gathering of 1,000 family, supporters, and staff gathered to mark 10 years since the Roundhouse’s rebirth.
In the decade since its £30 million makeover, the former Victorian engine shed has played host to a dizzying array of 4,000 arts and music performances, and worked with 30,000 young people.
At the centre of the evening, which inevitably included a showcase of “talented young performers,” was a man who in nearly 17 years has worn multiple hats: from building project manager to artistic director to bar licensee.
“I have kept the same job title but had to be adaptable to do so many different roles – but the aim has always been the same,” says Marcus Davey. “To build an organisation to work with young people.”
When Davey joined the Chalk Farm venue, he worked “with five staff out of a couple of huts on a mud patch”.
He recalls: “It was still a beautiful structure but it was in a terrible state, the roof was so thin if you coughed inside they’d hear it up the street.
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“There was no equipment, no facilities, just portaloos in the car park, and we had to get a licence every 25 days.”
Camden Town toy millionaire Torquil Norman had a vision to turn the space – famed for its theatre and music gigs in the 60s – into a state of the art performance space and centre for young people.
“We had to take Torquil’s vision, raise the money and get the architectural plans.
“There were a million things that needed to be done to reopen the building.
“Forty per cent of the money came from government and lottery sources – the rest from trusts, foundations and individuals.”
As well as hosting big shows, the venue is home to the Roundhouse Studios: 24 fully-equipped spaces where young people create their own radio, music, spoken word, and other digital arts.
In addition, young people have taken part in opera, dance and circus often working with big name practitioners performing in the main space.
“Fifty-five percent are from disadvantaged backgrounds, they work in a professional way to learn skills gain experience and move on in their lives either in education, into a job or to have a happier life through the arts,” says Davey.
Roundhouse Radio, which broadcasts 40 hours of live content a week, is run by trainees who have gone on to bag jobs at the BBC and in commercial radio.
Graduates of the Roundhouse’s Street Circus course this year performed in the biannual Circus Festival in the main house.
“They are not only gaining experience of being on a professional platform but learning other skills like team work, confidence, self esteem, self reliance which are all critically important to enable people to see themselves within their context.”
Davey says participants are from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, bringing together young people who might not otherwise meet.
The show that marked the Roundhouse’s re-opening – Fuerzabruta’s genre-defying mix of performance art, mime, theatre and circus – was in effect a “statement of intent” for a programme that has encompassed art, dance, circus, theatre, mime, opera, spoken word, poetry, and every stripe of music: from unplugged musicians to mega-performers like Prince, Radiohead, and Adele.
“I’m proud of being able to achieve a regular international circus festival, spoken word festival and all different genres in music,” says Davey.
Future plans include a collaboration with the Royal Ballet and Zoonation, and more work with the Royal Opera House. More immediately, Ron Arad’s installation returns as part of an annual summer art event. And the Alexandra Palace resident is also proud that the Roundhouse reaches a hugely diverse audience ranging from the very young to pensioners. “If we are not doing it for everyone who are we doing it for?”
“We are aiming to achieve further reach into communities that don’t have the opportunities that others have,” he says. “Creating a fantastic arts experience that is transformative.”
For Davey, “transformation” is the Roundhouse’s watch-word.
“When I see a young person who has had a pretty challenging life being treated professionally learn something that helps them discover their inner creativity, when a young person achieves something, I see how transformative the arts can be for them and for society.”
And the Roundhouse remains his favourite venue, a “democratic” space that transforms the relationship between audience and performer into something electic and magical.
“It’s an extraordinary space, your eyes go up you behold this secular cathedral. In the round anywhere you sit you get a good view.
“You are never far from the stage so 3,000 people together can feel really intimate, I have enjoyed so many special moments there. I really think I have the best job in the world.”
Built 1847 by the London and North Western Railway as an engine repair shed.
1871-1920s – Becomes a bonded warehouse to store Gilbey’s gin
1940s – Falls into disuse
1964 – Playwright Arnold Wesker adapts it for his Centre 42 Theatre Company. Productions there include Peter Brook’s famous A Midsummer Night’s Dream
1966 – Pink Floyd play at launch of underground newspaper International Times
1968 – The Doors play their only UK gig. The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix Led Zeppelin and The Clash play over the years
1983 – The Greater London Council hands it over to Camden Council but it falls into disrepair
1996 – Torquil Norman buys it and forms The Roundhouse Trust to revive it as a performance space and centre for young people
2004 – The Grade II* listed building closes for a multimillion pound refurbishment
2006 – June 1, Argentinian performance group De La Guarda reopen it with Fuerzabruta