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  • Writer's pictureLondon On The Ground

The Almeida, Islington's world renowned local theatre, has a colourful history

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

Once a Victorian self-education institute, Salvation Army barracks and a novelties store, it's now one of London's best loved theatres.

Islington has many theatres, but the Almeida is possibly the most famous and prestigious.

 

The theatre has an international reputation and attracts top quality actors, directors, writers designers and technicians.

 

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The Almeida's website states that "The Almeida exists to launch the next generation of British artists onto the world stage". It also seeks to make new work and to reinvigorate classics.

 

In its usual configuration, the auditorium seats 329 people on two levels in a repurposed 19th century building. The foyer, rebuilt in 2003 during other major refurbishments, connects the auditorium to the bar.

 

I recently had an opportunity to go on a backstage tour of the Almeida, led by the theatre's knowledgeable, enthusiastic and engaging Chief Technician, Jason Wescombe.


My Upper Street walking tour includes a stop outside the theatre and I have attended many productions at the theatre, so I jumped at the chance to see the areas normally off-limits to audiences.

 

A veteran of 25 years with the company, Jason talked eloquently about the history of the building and of the theatre. He took us onto and behind the stage, up into the technical room and below into the basement and dressing rooms.

The Almeida auditorium from the technical room above the balcony

The theatre takes its name from its location in Almeida Street, itself named in memory of a battle in Portugal in 1811, part of the Duke of Wellington's campaigns against the French in the Iberian Peninsula.

 

The theatre building was originally constructed as the Islington Literary and Scientific Institution in 1837, the same year that Queen Victoria came to the throne. It contained a lecture theatre, library, reading room, museum, laboratory, classrooms, committee rooms and offices.


For an image of the original lecture hall, which faced the opposite way from today's auditorium, please click this link.

 

Its architects were Robert Lewis Roumieu and Alexander Dick Gough, who were also responsible for Milner Square, which was built between 1841 and 1850 and can be found through a narrow passageway at the end of Almeida Street (see Milner Square on my Beautiful Barnsbury tour).

 

The Institution's builder was William Spencer Dove, who also built Milner Square and took a house there. He was the founder of Islington firm Dove Brothers, who built many churches and public buildings across London and the country.

 

Part of a movement of self-improvement in the days before widespread public libraries and universal education, the Institution aimed to provide local people with a better understanding of the world around them.

 

A laudable aim, but its popularity was eroded by the 1850 Public Libraries Act and the 1870 Education Act. The Islington Literary and Scientific Institution ceased in 1872 and a gentlemen's club, the Wellington Club (then also the name of the street), took over the building in 1874.

 

In 1890 the Salvation Army bought the building and converted it into a place of worship. They installed seats facing towards the curved east wall of the auditorium, reversing the previous configuration, and added balconies to provide an upper layer of seating.

The Almeida's curved wall

The Salvation Army named it the Wellington Castle Barracks (modelled on military lines, the Salvation Army's meeting halls were often known as barracks). The street was renamed Almeida Street shortly after this time.

Detail of the balcony installed by the Salvation Army

In 1956 the Salvation Army sold the building to a company called Beck's British Carnival Novelties, which sold and hired out fancy dress, party novelties and circus equipment. The firm had a shop on Upper Street and used the Almeida Street premises as a repository and warehouse.

 

Tragically Beck's came to an unfortunate end in 1971, when its manager, a Mr Malcolm Heaysman (commonly known as Mr Beck), was murdered after it emerged that he was a transvestite. His wife discovered his secret when she found a "huge quantity of women's clothing" in a locked room above the shop on Upper Street.

 

Heaysman's stepson followed him to the cottage in Wales that he was renovating and beat him to death, leaving the body to be discovered by his mother.

 

The former Beck's warehouse building soon fell into disrepair and was threatened with demolition, but local residents campaigned to save it. In the early 1970s, it was bought by Lebanese-born theatre and opera director Pierre Audi and two university friends, Will Bowen and Chris Naylor.

 

The Almeida Theatre Company launched at the Edinburgh Festival in 1979 and the Almeida Theatre itself opened in 1981. Since then its reputation has burgeoned and it has staged many very successful productions, with several West End transfers.

 

Its artistic directors have been Pierre Audi (1979-1989), Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid (1990-2002), Michael Attenborough (2002-2013) and Rupert Goold (2013 to present).

 

The Almeida stages six or seven productions a year, combining new writing specially commissioned for the venue with reworking well-known plays. Shakespeare and musicals have become important elements of the programme.

 

Recent productions have included Patriots by Peter Morgan, directed by Rupert Goold and starring Tom Hollander as Russian oligarch Boris Bereovsky, which transferred to the West End in 2023 after its 2022 run at the Almeida; and Tammy Faye, a new musical with music by Elton John, lyrics by Jake Shears and book by James Graham.

 

The current production, A Mirror by Sam Holcroft, is a new piece "interrogating censorship, authorship and free speech". Forthcoming productions include a revival of Portia Coughlan, Marina Carr's modern Irish classic about destructive families and obsession, and Shakespeare's King Lear.

 

All actors at Almeida productions are paid the same Equity rates, but that does not stop it from attracting famous names.


Actors appearing at the theatre have included Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Ben Whishaw, Juliet Stephenson, Andrew Scott, Simon Russell Beale, Kathryn Hunter, Benedict Cumberbatch and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, to name a few.

 

The Almeida notes on its website that, since the days of the Islington Literary and Scientific Institution, its building existed to investigate the world. Through its proud tradition of theatrical productions that challenge, inspire, provoke and entertain, it continues to investigate and interrogate.

 

The Almeida offers occasional theatre tours on select Saturday mornings. Check its website for dates and availability (https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/theatre-tour/), although they tend to sell out fast.

 

The Almeida Theatre (outside only) features on my walking tour Up and Down Upper Street, which next takes place on Saturday 16 September at 11am.


Milner Square features on my walking tour Beautiful Barnsbury, which next takes place on Saturday 23 September at 1.30pm.

 

For a full schedule of London On The Ground tours and events, please click here.

 

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