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A major new West End theatre is to open this autumn, designed to give audiences an alternative to the restricted legroom, poor sightlines and iffy acoustics – not to mention stuffy heat – of some of London’s older playhouses.

On a tour of the venue, which has been named @sohoplace, its owner Nica Burns explained that the building’s proximity to the redeveloped Tottenham Court Road station brought another set of challenges, namely noise and vibrations. The new Elizabeth line, as well as the Northern and Central lines, pass directly beneath the site and Crossrail’s enormous ventilation system lies adjacent to the auditorium.

The 12-year project to build the theatre was part of a £300m regeneration of the area by property business Derwent London that also includes the first new street name in Soho for 72 years: Soho Place, a piazza by the former site of the Astoria music venue, which was one of the buildings demolished for the Crossrail project. The exact cost of her own theatre within that multimillion package, said Burns, was as yet not entirely clear.

a balcony inside the auditorium of the new theatre, @sohoplace.
No bad seats … a balcony inside the auditorium. Photograph: Tim Soar

One of the West End’s superstar producers, Burns already co-owns and operates six venues in her Nimax group, including the Vaudeville (home to the Tony award-winning musical Six), the Palace (where Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is resident) and the Apollo (currently hosting Jerusalem). Tickets for all three are currently hard to come by and Burns said the pandemic had left audiences craving the magic of live theatre.

Forming one point of a triangle along with the Dominion and Phoenix theatres, @sohoplace is billed as the first new-build West End theatre in 50 years. (Soho’s now closed Boulevard, which opened in 2019, was a combination of new-build, retrofit and preservation.) The “@” sign and lowercase style of the name were a practical recognition, said Burns, of how the majority of tickets are now booked online.

Architect Simon Allford, engineers Arup and construction company Laing O’Rourke have collaborated on the building whose heart is a curved, air-conditioned, surprisingly intimate auditorium with 602 blue seats (and generous legroom). On a first walk around, it’s hard to find a bad seat in the house. Sophisticated acoustic design means there is no need for mics or bellowing on the stage – and most impressively, no noise from the nearby transport network.

Although the opening production will be staged in the round, the playing space is flexible enough to accommodate several configurations. Ticket prices have not been announced but Burns said they won’t be three figures, and will be “less than what the National Theatre charge”. Although no programming has been confirmed, one forthcoming show will make use of an acoustic country & western band performing beside the stage. The venue will be run as a not-for-profit, with earnings going back into the theatre.

‘Let’s make magic’ … theatre owner and producer Nica Burns in the auditorium of @sohoplace
‘Let’s make magic’ … theatre owner and producer Nica Burns in the auditorium of @sohoplace. Photograph: Geraint Lewis

To create @sohoplace, Burns consulted not only with audiences about what they wanted but also with actors, playwrights including James Graham, directors including Marianne Elliott, and other creatives. Leading a tour of the five floors of the building, Burns was in jubilant mood, even delivering lyrics from A Chorus Line with a few leg kicks while showing off an elegant staircase. There is a rehearsal space with mirrored wall and ballet barre, an open air corner terrace and a green room with its own bar – named for the producer, whose handwritten name hangs above it in pink neon lights.

The theatre has a constellation leitmotif which was inspired by Burns’s performance under the night sky, as a young actor, at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus in Greece. Astrological signs adorn the restaurant and lights twinkle underneath the building’s canopy entrance. “Theatre is about magic,” she said. “Let’s make this a magic space.”

London’s West End gets first purpose-built theatre in 50 years

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