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Boulevard Theatre’s Fawn James on being among London’s new wave of theatres

In total, there are six new theatres opening in London in 2019 - a stat that those who criticise the supposed decline of the Arts in London might find unbelievable. They include The Turbine Theatre in Battersea Power Station, The Alexandra Palace Theatre and most centrally, the Boulevard Theatre in Soho.

Much like the Troubadour White City, another brand new theatre venue, the Boulevard is here thanks to property developers, who understand the cultural cache of investing in building arts spaces in the sense that they encourage communities and revivify areas, ultimately making property nearby more valuable. A theatre helps to create the sense of an “authentic” and desirable community - which is great news for London’s creatives, who have an exciting set of new spaces to experiment within.

Amid the discussions about Soho’s arts spaces being on the decline, the Boulevard Theatre is offering a diverse daytime and late-night line-up to rival the Soho Theatre nearby. And within the Walker’s Court regeneration zone, another of the Boulevard’s neighbours will be the iconic Madame Jojo’s nightclub when it reopens next year. All things considered, now seems a good time to experience the arts in Soho.

As founder Fawn James, grandaughter of Paul Raymond who helmed the original Boulevard Theatre on this same spot, tells us: “Theatre has always been part of London’s DNA - so it is lovely to see these new theatres popping up in every direction.”

Here Fawn tells us more about the rebirth of Soho, her new theatre project and the rise of new theatres in London in a broader sense.

Adam Bloodworth: Hi Fawn. So, what’s the deal with the Boulevard Theatre?

Fawn James: Entertainment was my grandfather, Paul Raymond’s, ethos and it is my mission to keep that going for him.

This project began back in 2010 when we (property company Soho Estates) decided that we needed to do something to regenerate Walker’s Court because it was in disrepair and it had become a centre of crime in Soho. So, whilst we were considering what we could do, I had asked my dad (John James, MD of Soho Estates) whether we still had any of my Grandfather’s original theatres within our portfolio, at which point he mentioned the original Boulevard Theatre which used to sit in Walker’s Court (and was at that point ‘The French Pussycat’.)

Honouring my grandfather’s legacy is hugely important for me and I see this relaunch as a way of celebrating him and my heritage and also giving something back to and enhancing the community of Soho. So, I therefore pushed for us to include the reinstatement of the Boulevard within the wider development scheme – it seemed to come at the perfect time to be able to respond to the need to regenerate the street and to also reinstate an original part of our portfolio.

The original Boulevard Theatre was the Raymond Revue bar (a mid-century London theatre which closed in 2004) second venue, hosting over the years, performers who are now essential to the cultural, comic and theatrical life of Britain. I hope that aspiring actors, comedians and performers alike will continue to have the opportunity to showcase their work at this new venue and create a new wave of talent, energy and creativity for the decades to come.

Adam: London seems full of new theatres at the moment! Why's right now proving to be a good time for new theatre openings?

Fawn: I don’t entirely know! I imagine it might be partly down to coincidence that lots of developments are coming to fruition at the same time. For the longer running developments, I think it could be pure chance that this has happened because it is inevitable that you will experience hiccups and delays along the way. I originally thought that the Boulevard would be opening last year, but once building started, we soon realised that was looking too optimistic. It’s a very encouraging sign that investment in the arts at this level is in a healthy state. Theatre has always been part of London’s DNA, so it is lovely to see these new theatres popping up in every direction. The more we can create environments where we can come together and share experiences the better.

Soho and its surrounding area is almost unrivalled for the breadth and quality of its arts, creativity and culture. Soho is one of the most creative square miles in the world and there is always space, both geographically and culturally, for further talent to thrive and additional voices to be heard, and I believe the Boulevard will be an invaluable additional space to provide this.

Adam: What’re your own personal memories of Soho?

Fawn: I guess my true experiences of Soho began when I started living in Soho after University. I think the most special night I have had was celebrating my 25th Birthday at the, then yet to be open to the public, Box nightclub which sits in the home of the original Raymond Revuebar.

I never had the opportunity to go to the original venue, but it is obviously where my family’s legacy began. The Box was an unknown concept at that time, all we knew was that it was a modern day interpretation of what the original venue was, so I had absolutely no idea what to expect. It really was the most incredible and unexpected evening - Simon Hammerstein wouldn’t let me know what acts would be performing and said that it had to be a surprise...it was definitely that! They were both spectacular and shocking at the same time, which I think is a perfect example of a night out in Soho.

Adam: Did it sadden you over the past few years to see so many clubs in Soho close, and how, if at all, is the Boulevard Theatre responding to the reduction of nightlife in the area?

Fawn: It is obviously sad to see venues close, but there are often more reasons behind their closure than people are aware. There is a lot of pressure on landlords for being ‘blamed’ for being the reason for a lot of the closures, but quite a lot of the time, it is down to whether people are actually frequenting these venues and spending money and therefore keeping the venue alive or not. Everyone has a part of Soho that they are trying to ‘save’, but a romantic perception is not what keeps venues alive.

Walker’s Court is going to be a hub for nightlife in Soho and it will be wonderful to see this little street thriving again with the Box nightclub (in the original Raymond Revuebar), the Boulevard and also Madame JoJo’s which is due to open again next year.

Adam: The programming is very ambitious, with a late-night offering as strong as its traditional theatre scheduling. Is the Boulevard perhaps looking to turn into something like the Phoenix Arts Club later at night?

Fawn: The Phoenix Arts Club is a membership club I believe, so in that respect we are very different. We do have levels of membership which give you certain perks, but the venue will be open to anyone and everyone. We are also a producing house so there is a rather big difference there too. I am sure some elements of the programme will at times overlap, they have a very busy fun programme, so in that regard I am hopeful that we too will be able to cultivate a great buzz with our diverse programme of late night shows.

I really wanted the venue to sit outside of the traditional perception of theatre. It will be an all-inclusive venue that can achieve many different things, putting equal emphasis on all aspects of the business – theatre, restaurant, bar, late night entertainment, day time use, rehearsal space. So I guess the strong F&B offering combined with a mix of late night entertainment, could provide some similarity.

I believe that by producing our own shows, we can retain complete control of our venue and brand. I have been in close consultation throughout our season planning and am very excited by the direction that the theatre will take. I’m hoping that the restaurant and bar area will in itself become somewhere that people will want to spend time, regardless of if they are seeing a show. I would like it to be a space that like-minded people can socialise, meet and work together creatively. The F&B team at the Boulevard, led by head chef Greg Hillier, have created an innovative menu with emphasis on local producers, sustainability and inclusiveness. The playfulness of the venue is also reflected in the dining experience with menus being adapted regularly to bring in elements of the current theatrical shows.

Adam: And finally, what would you say is the single most important part of your job?

Fawn: Being a custodian for the area that my family and company are a large stakeholder in. It is very important to me that we, as a company, take pride in who our tenants are. We do, to our best ability, make sure that each and every tenant is there to enhance our community of Soho. Obviously, areas change and adapt to the wants and needs of the people that frequent it and it is important to me that we can play an important role in doing as much as we can to keep up to date with those needs and desires. This is also one of the main reasons that the new Boulevard sits at the heart of our Walker’s Court development, as I believe it will enhance and complement our wonderful area of Soho.

@fawnjames | boulevardtheatre.co.uk

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