Roundhouse redo gains steam

Venue on track to reopen

LONDON — The Roundhouse, the former steam-engine repair shed that has had a checkered history of late as a performance venue, has announced plans to reopen as a major North London arts venue in fall 2005. The groundbreaking ceremony was held Wednesday, though construction quietly began a week earlier.

Among those expected to attend the ceremony are Torquil Norman, the toy entrepreneur who purchased the Roundhouse in 1996 and now is chairman of the Roundhouse Trust, actress Juliet Stevenson and actor-playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah (“Elmina’s Kitchen”).

Aim is to reopen the circular building just north of trendy Camden Lock in October or November of next year as a multipurpose venue dominated by a flexible Main Space capable of holding 3,300 people standing or 1,800 seated. The aim is to provide a dedicated London home for physical theater and contemporary circus performance, as befits the auditorium where Off Broadway hit De La Guarda had an 11-month run.

Beneath that central arena will be an arts center for young people ages 13-25, intended to benefit a borough that’s one of London’s most racially and culturally diverse. Known as the Creative Center, the scheme will provide access for 10,000 under-25s per year to hone skills in film editing, sound engineering, graffiti art, street dance and the like.

The center, said education director Elizabeth Lynch, “is not an add-on for the Roundhouse. It’s the whole raison d’etre of the project.”

The Roundhouse site will be home to four building projects simultaneously. Besides the Main Space and the arts center, a new wing is to be built to the side of the existing structure to house bars and cafes plus a studio theater underneath. In the main house, the glass roof, blackened during the venue’s warehouse days, will be restored in order to shed natural light on a gallery running 360 degrees around the building.

Roundhouse execs said it was too early to say what shows or artists might figure in the opening season, though a summer 2006 music fest looks likely, as an alternative to the Royal Albert Hall Promenade concerts, or “Proms.”

Hendrix, Doors played there

The £28 million ($50 million) overhaul of the Roundhouse follows a period of considerable instability for the venue, which has struggled in recent years to find an identity. In the early 1960s, the building was most notably a rock palace, playing host to, among others, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors (in their only British appearance) and, in their first gig, Pink Floyd.

During the late 1960s and into the ’70s, the Roundhouse housed talents ranging from Peter Brook and, in 1980, the Rustaveli Theater Co. of Soviet Georgia to Pierre Boulez and the Manchester Royal Exchange. The erotic revue “Oh! Calcutta” played the Roundhouse prior to its West End run.

The venue closed for more than a decade in 1983, only to resurface in recent years as a showcase for Oscar winner Michael Moore’s one-man show, Britain’s Ballet Boyz, a revival of “Oh, What a Lovely War!,” and a season of three Shakespeare plays by the Royal Shakespeare Co., including a Matthew Warchus-helmed “A Winter’s Tale” that did poor biz.