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Mermaid Theatre: Wikis


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Mermaid Theatre
The Mermaid Theatre, now primarily a conference centre.
Puddle Dock
Architect Ove Arup
Owned by Blackfriars PD Ltd
Capacity 600-seated on one level
Type open-stage
Opened 1959
Closed 2003
Production 2008: To be "redeveloped"
Current use Conference centre and recording
Coordinates: 51°30′41″N 0°06′07″W / 51.511306°N 0.101972°W / 51.511306; -0.101972

The Mermaid Theatre was a theatre at Puddle Dock, in Blackfriars, in the City of London and the first built there since the time of Shakespeare. It was, importantly, also one of the first new theatres to abandon the traditional stage layout; instead a single tier of seats surrounded the stage on three sides.



The 20th-century theatre was the life's work of actor Bernard Miles with his wife, Josephine Wilson. His original Mermaid Theatre was a large barn in his house in the St. John's Wood area of London. This seated 200 people, and during 1951-1952 it was used for concerts, plays and a celebrated opera production of Dido and Aeneas with Kirsten Flagstad, Maggie Teyte and Thomas Hemsley, conducted by Geraint Jones, which was recorded by HMV. For the third season in 1953, the Mermaid Theatre was moved to the Royal Exchange.[1]

Miles was encouraged to build a permanent theatre and raising money from public subscriptions, he oversaw the creation of the new building on land formerly occupied by a warehouse. This site was close to the location of an abortive attempt to build a theatre (named Porter's Hall) for the amalgamation of the Children of the Queen's Revels and Lady Elizabeth's Men, during the Jacobean period. This project, undertaken by Philip Rosseter with distant backing from Henslowe and Alleyn, was ended because of complaints from the neighborhood's residents.

The new Mermaid Theatre opened in 1959 with a successful production of Lock Up Your Daughters and it was the venue for many other very successful productions, such as Cowardy Custard (often cited as responsible for the revival of interest in Noël Coward's works) and including an annual staging of Treasure Island, with Miles reprising his role of Long John Silver, which he also played in a television version. The Mermaid Theatre also ran the Molecule Club, educating children about science.

Gomba Holdings, a property company owned by Ugandan Asian businessman Abdul Shamji and his family, which had interests in the Garrick Theatre and Wembley Stadium, bought the theatre in the mid-1980s in the hope of redeveloping the Puddle Dock site. Bernard Miles' tenure as honorary artistic advisor was terminated, and the theatre's importance declined. In 1989 Abdul Shamji was sentenced to 15-months in prison over the Johnson Matthey bank collapse,[2 ][3] and Josephine Wilson died in 1990 and Bernard (by then Lord) Miles in 1991. Marc Sinden took over as artistic director in 1993 but left the next year, then actor Roy Marsden and Vanessa Ford took over the running of the theatre for a few months prior to its eventual closure.

After a further change of ownership the theatre was slated for demolition in 2002 as part of redevelopment plans. Already it had fallen into disuse, the buildings being used more often as a conference centre than a theatre. A preservation campaign by actors and other supporters attempted to reverse the decision. In April 2003 Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, ordered the council to block the demolition. As of March 2005, new plans had been submitted for the redevelopment of the site. Nothing materialised and the building continued to operate primarily as a conference centre. The BBC Concert Orchestra used it for occasional concerts, and the BBC recorded of a popular weekly radio show, Friday Night is Music Night that showcased musicians like of violinst Nigel Kennedy and singer Josh Groban.

Loss of theatre status, and redevelopment plans

In September 2008, the Corporation of London City Planning Committee, against the advice of the Theatres Trust and noted actors, producers and artistic directors, granted a certificate that stripped the former playhouse of its theatre status. The move may save the developer £6 million worth of Section 106 funding which it had previously agreed to pay in lieu if it closed the 600-seat Mermaid; the company could be released from the obligation because no theatrical productions have taken place for more than ten years. The existing plans would see the Puddle Dock building converted into a conference centre and fitness suite, plus offices, a nightclub and retail and restaurant space. Campaigners are concerned that the entire building may be demolished. [4] John Levitt, former chairman of Save London’s Theatres Campaign, which led the high profile battle to save the venue, branded the decision “a tragedy” and “sheer meanness”.

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