Roundhouse - the new-ish music and arts venue in Camden, North London
"Roundhouse", generally known as The Roundhouse or the Camden Roundhouse is a performing arts venue in North London, near the goth heartland of Camden. It is a huge circular Victorian structure with a distinctive conical roof. It serves the capital as a home for experimental theatre requiring innovative staging, and for more normal pop and rock music acts.
The main circular section is 50m across, with a curved bar and café along the north-west side. It's about as tall at the point of the roof as it is wide and about 35m high at the top of the main wall. It lies on Chalk Farm Road between the Chalk Farm and Camden Town London Underground Stations. It's clearly visible as you come into the main Euston Station from the north.
The Roundhouse was originally constructed in 1846 as a covering for a massive turntable. In those days, the rail company had a whole fleet of steam trains without adequate reverse gears. They drove them straight into the Roundhouse, onto the tracked turntable, spun them through 180° and drove them straight out again. Unsurprisingly, this arrangement is called a turning shed.
The original structure consisted of an inner circle with a high conical roof, and a short central turret. The edge of this roof was supported by a ring of ornate cast iron columns with decorative wrought iron brackets on top to support the roof slates. A larger outer ring had a slightly less steep roof, supported on the main exterior brick wall. All of these structural details are retained to this day, and the whole thing is a Grade II∗ listed building.
Within a few years, the building was being used as a bonded warehouse for Gilbey's Gin. This is the longest-enduring use of the building. From 1963 to 1983, it was thoroughly re-purposed as a louche performing arts venue called "Centre 42". There is a Trade Union maxim known as "Article 42" that says that The Arts must be for everyone. In this guise, it saw notable performances and happenings from Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and their ilk, and many different theatre groups. Some of these events were noted for their psychedelic vibe, with the audience reclined on cushions and smoking who-knows-what, while Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger swanned about, listening to Syd Barrett and watching naked revellers rolling about with a man-sized jelly¹
By 1983 the atmosphere for the Arts in the UK had turned a bit chillier, especially perhaps for counter-cultural organisations like Centre 42. The venue closed down due to financial pressures, and remained shut until 1996. It was given a quick refurbishment by Torquil Norman, under the auspices of the Norman Trust. He also set up the Roundhouse Trust to maintain and further improve the building fabric, and Roundhouse Studios, as a youth theatre group. During this incarnation, now-familiar acts like Stomp and Ballet Boyz drew early audiences; and established groups like the RSC played too. This era came to an end in 2004, by which time donations and ticket sales had raised nearly £30m for a complete refurbishment. It re-opened in its current form in 2006.
As well as the vast, cavernous, central space, the new Roundhouse has a curved bar along one side of the arena, and a larger bar café just outside the original 1846 wall. This new structure is fairly well integrated inside and out, and is home to the Roundhouse Studios rehearsal space and the 120-seater "Freedm Studio" Theatre. It describes a 15m-wide 90° arc from north to west, with an attractive three storey glass façade facing Chalk Farm Road. The main space seats 1,200 or stands 3000. The beautiful iron columns are still in place, and the exposed Victorian brickwork is visible throughout- it's like a steampunk version of the Royal Albert Hall.
The staging facilities are second to none. Last year, I saw "Fuerzabruta", a remarkable production in which the all-standing audience were corralled to and fro to make room for high-speed treadmills, dancers on guy-ropes and at one point, a glass, water-filled ceiling capping the whole central circle and filled with toned swim-dancers. This marvel then descended until it could easily be touched by the crowd.
I've also seen The Divine Comedy and Brian Wilson there, and though they rocked out as usual, the sound system seemed a little overwhelmed.
ALSO: On 29th October 2010, I performed with my choir in support of Robert Plant² and the Band of Joy as part of the BBC Electric Proms. At the hands of the BBC's sound technicians the venue came alive, and everything could be heard clearly, both by the audience, the live radio audience of MILLIONS and the eventual television audience of BILLIONS.
¹ - Yes really. It was the launch party of The International Times, the "All-Night Rave Pop Op Costume Masque Ball", which took place on 15th October 1966. This was probably the apex of its mind-expanding counter-cultural role, or the nadir of its degeneration, depending on which paper you read.
² - Yes, that Robert Plant, late of Led Zeppelin.
- Roundhouse Website, http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/