Architect is named most influential person in British theatre | Sunday Observer

Architect is named most influential person in British theatre

The grand hall at Battersea Arts Centre, in which Tompkins retained some scorch marks from a fire. Pic: Fred Howarth
The grand hall at Battersea Arts Centre, in which Tompkins retained some scorch marks from a fire. Pic: Fred Howarth

An architect described as a 21st-century Frank Matcham - the legendary designer of the London Palladium and Coliseum – has been named the most influential person in British theatre.

Steve Tompkins has been responsible for a string of transformative theatre building projects including at the Royal Court, Young Vic, Bush, National Theatre and Bridge Theatre in London and the Liverpool Everyman, his first theatre built from scratch for which he won the Stirling Prize in 2014.

The completion last year of redevelopments at Bristol Old Vic and Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) in London has helped propel him to the top of the annual 100-strong power list published by the Stage.

Tompkins, who was 23rd in last year’s list, has overtaken better known theatre names such as the producer Sonia Friedman (who is second on the list), Andrew Lloyd Webber (third) and Cameron Mackintosh (fourth).

The Battersea job was particularly challenging. Tompkins and his practice, Haworth Tompkins, had been working on transforming the town hall building into a 21st-century arts centre when a fire in 2015 left the grand hall a charred shell. It reopened last summer, with some of the scorch marks kept deliberately.

David Jubb, the BAC’s departing artistic director, called Tompkins a theatremaker. “As well as being an architect he is a programmer, producer, artist, environmentalist, entrepreneur, romantic, pragmatist and humanitarian. When Steve leads a project he invites everyone to be creative.”

Jubb said Tompkins succeeded in making theatre buildings that encouraged interaction, “in other words to bring communities together to make change”.

Alistair Smith, the editor of the Stage, said Tompkins could be seen as a modern-day successor to Matcham, the Victorian architect responsible for many important theatres including London’s Hippodrome and Hackney Empire.

There was a crucial difference, though. “Unlike Matcham, whose theatres divided audiences by class, Tompkins’ approach is all about democratising theatregoing … He is literally and physically transforming British theatre and his legacy will be experienced by millions of theatregoers for years to come.”

Tompkins, whose background is in social housing, said he was “thrilled and slightly taken aback” at the accolade, which he said was recognition for a wider collective effort. “Theatres are the places where individuals meet to affirm the things that we share in common. I hope our work can play a small role in reinforcing a civil society that all of us still want to be part of.”

New entries in the list include Ian McKellen at number 24, the highest-ranked actor on the list. Last year the 79-year-old took on, for the second time, one of acting’s biggest challenges in King Lear.

In 2019 he will tour a one-man show around 80 theatres, with the money raised going back to the venues.

- theguardian.com

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