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LAMDA: the wow factor

The Manny & Brigitta Davidson Foyer. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.

Well I’ve seen some drama school buildings in my time –  all the main ones from Glasgow to Guilford and from Liverpool to Loughton in fact, along with many less well known ones. I admire facilities, extensions and studios wherever I go. It’s my job. Never, though, have I seen anything to rival the grandiloquent scale of LAMDA’s new building to which I was invited last week for a preview.

The site beside the old Victorian building that LAMDA took over from the Royal Ballet School in 2003, straggles narrowly westward along Talgarth Road towards Hammersmith. LAMDA used to have temporary, single storey buildings on it.  As architect Niall McLaughlin told journalists last week, it’s challenging when you’re bounded by railway on one side and a six lane dual carriageway (the A4) on the other, bookended by listed buildings. The end result includes ten large studios, a 220 seat theatre, a studio theatre, a rather nice foyer and lots of offices and storage. LAMDA Exams, for example, will move back in-house to the third floor, later this summer. It’s remarkable just how much space McLaughlin and his colleagues have found from such a limited base area.

Of course, it’s excellent for LAMDA to have everything on one site for the first time ever. The old MacOwan Theatre which was sold to help fund the new building was off site and LAMDA shows have been staged in various venues across the captital for several years. And alumni Rory Kinnear and Paterson Joseph were there last week to reminisce about having to travel all over London to unlikely teaching spaces, such as an operational convent where the nuns passed through the classes and gave notes. Today’s students will have proper professional facilities – and, principal Joanna Read insists, there are no plans to increase student numbers because LAMDA is determined not to train more people than the industry needs. Various people quip that the theatre provision is now so good at LAMDA that when new graduates go out to their first jobs they will feel that they are slumming it.

Not, as everyone, including Chairman, Shaun Woodward, said at the event that buildings are the most important factor in training. The quality of the teaching is the essence of the training.

That’s always been high at LAMDA – witness the fact that it’s unusual to see any show anywhere without at least one LAMDA graduate in the cast. And for the last two years every single LAMDA technical theatre student has gone straight into professional work on graduating. It’s a success story regardless of the surroundings.  It’s simply that now the teaching will be more efficient because it’s all based under one properly resourced roof.

And the bottom line for all this? £28.2 million of which only one million came from public funding. The rest had to be raised from trusts, donors, alumni and so on. Quite an achievement. The Monument Trust (part of the Sainsbury empire) was generous, for example, which is why the main space has become the Sainsbury Theatre. The names of some of the other donors are evident in names around the building: the Carne Studio Theatre, the Manny and Brigitta Davison Foyer and the Sackler Library among others.

I’ve long argued that drama schools should be a cultural resource for the local community – quality theatre on the doorstep – and that’s one of the many things that Joanna Read and her staff of 95 are now hoping to build up. I can’t wait to see a show or two in those spaces, either.