Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, an institution that’s been at the heart of the city’s dramatic landscape for 50 years, has been torn down and replaced with a new building by London-based practice Haworth Tompkins. But the firm has stayed true to the original intentions of the Everyman’s creators
Words Shumi Bose
Photography Philip Vile
Liverpool's Hope Street is one of those eclectic streets where the best of English architectural aspiration comes together. Bookended by Frederick Gibberd's tremendous Metropolitan Cathedral - a crown of thorns if ever one was built - and the Giles Gilbert Scott-designed Anglican cathedral on the other, it also hosts an almost unfair number of historic gems; the brick Moderne of the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, the variegated masonry of the John Moores University buildings and the classical pretentions of the Liverpool Medical Institution, rounding the northern corner.
The exterior of the new Everyman Theatre has retained the iconic red sign from the original building to offer continuity between the old and the new
Established in 1964 by a small group of 'angry young men', the Everyman Theatre on Hope Street has a history rooted in the city's cultural and political foment. Built on the site of a dissenter's chapel, subsequently a cinema-cum-hangout for the artists and poets of the emergent Liverpool Scene, the Everyman was given its distinctive long, overhanging Hope Street frontage in the mid-Seventies. From this point, its iconic red neon sign acted as a beacon for local talent - it debuted the first work by the city's beloved playwright Willy Russell, as well as luminary actors including the late Pete Postlethwaite and Julie Walters.
Closed in 2011, the Everyman has been razed and rebuilt on its original site. Haworth Tompkins, in this sensitive reconstruction of urban heritage, has retained certain essential and cherished features: that red sign, the raucous bistro bar, and a prodigious stage (on which more later). However, the most dramatic change to the Everyman is the facade. While Haworth Tompkins worked with specialist typographer Jake Tilson to recreate the iconic lettering in LED, the sombre concrete screen was replaced by an animated display: 105 portraits of ordinary Liverpudlians (based on portraits taken by photographer Dan Kenyon, which were then water-jet cut out of solid aluminium sheet) form movable shutters across the whole frontage of the upper floors. Workers in the administrative offices of the Liverpool and Merseyside Theatres Trust can simply reach out to adjust a panel to adapt conditions of light and shade. From the first encounter with the facade, one is introduced to the idea of personal implication, and of inhabitants empowered to act directly on their surroundings.
Despite the total rebuild, the architects have kept a few of the original's features; the new Everyman has been designed to complement its surroundings
This continues inside. The Everyman's nooks and enclaves can be activated in pleasingly analogue fashion: sliders and barndoors open rooms or close them off, into hire-spaces or meeting rooms. Specially designed light fittings, which operate like stage props on counterweights, invite participation in the underground bar, with leaden weights to demonstrate their simple mechanics. Raw concrete, bearing the marks of its wooden shuttering, makes up the Everyman's internal structure; extra soundproofing and tactility is provided by wooden screens, made of the shuttering itself - the guts of the building on display. The material and techniques are reminiscent of Denys Lasdun's 1953 National Theatre on London's South Bank- if somewhat warmer and finer - likewise being refurbished by Haworth Tompkins. Also learned from the larger-than-life Lasdun is a certain choreography of space; the movement of people through the building provides multiple opportunity for watching and being watched, with modulated layers of exposure and enclosure.
This project marks another collaboration between Haworth Tompkins and artist Antoni Malinowski. Here, Malinowski's ceiling paintings, applied by hand, add a touch of human vibrancy and warmth to a lobby area otherwise demarcated by fins of shuttered concrete; behind the bar, a treacly, tarred brick brings more textural contrast. The interior spaces manage to retain a sense of conviviality without being confrontational; in a sense the act of watching, performing, and physically acting upon the building almost prepares visitors for its distinctive, exposed theatre stage.
The new stage and seating at the Everyman Theatre, which was intended to keep some of the original flavour while offering a larger seating capacity
As a theatre, one of the most notorious features of the Everyman is the stage itself. Highly unusual and essential to its character, the Everyman's performance area might be described as a 'deep thrust' - a 10 sq m space extending out from the back wall, originally under a low and somewhat oppressive ceiling.
Welsh actor and director Jonathan Pryce aptly described it as a boxing ring, for its simultaneously democratic and daunting format. However, there are no ropes, and no platform or podium either; Haworth Tompkins' reconfiguration respects this sense of jeopardous proximity; surrounded on at least three sides, there is no separation whatsoever between actors and audience, whose feet rest on the stage itself.
The new auditorium is reconstructed from the very fabric of the original; 25,000 bricks reclaimed from the demolition hold their history even as they form the walls around the audience. Haworth Tompkins has added a much-needed fly tower, enabling sets to be 'flown' up into invisibility, as well as a full technical rig; the essence of intimacy between audience and stage has been retained while allowing companies to have much more freedom. Indeed, thanks to flexible seating blocks the stage can be reconfigured to operate as a smaller thrust, 'in-the-round' or a traverse stage, with each arrangement allowing a varied audience capacity. But it is the original, confrontational performance 'floor' for which the Everyman is best known and loved. In this arrangement, the new theatre seats 406, significantly up on its original capacity, yet somehow it loses little of its immediacy.
The open foyer of the new Everyman Theatre is designed to feel modern while also retaining some of the inclusivity of the original theatre
The fly tower and rig are two practical additions; the new Everyman has many more, without which one marvels at the determination its original occupants had before it ceased operations in 2011. Among these improvements: delivery access at the back of the theatre, fully serviced dressing rooms, and refurbished areas for wardrobe and rehearsals. The new Everyman also includes a smaller community theatre, already essential to the highly active youth theatre groups in the area. Impressively, the whole building is naturally ventilated - a condition that certainly belongs to its contemporary concerns.
The system draws fresh cool air from the back of the site, underneath the main structure, up and into the main auditorium, where the heat of the audience and stage lights help to push the warm, spent air spiralling out through four magnificently portly, almost ship-like chimney vents on top of the building -
themselves reminiscent of the city's industrial and maritime heritage. Haworth Tompkins' bright red Shed (completed in 2013, see Blueprint 331, January 2014), a temporary stand-in for the National Theatre's Cottesloe Theatre while the latter is refurbished, is similarly serviced through natural ventilation, though achieving this in a complex and permanent building with occupation at varied intensities is a great achievement.
Lighting is used in the building with specially designed light fittings that create a unique ambience throughout the space
Indeed, Haworth Tompkins has much practice in working with theatres. Starting with the refurbishment of the Royal Court in 2000, the practice has tackled theatre spaces of varying heritage and scale, including the Young Vic and Open Air Theatres in London, and the Ustinov and neighbouring Egg theatres in Bath. The pattern shows no sign of abating; the Donmar Warehouse and NT in London, the Festival Theatre in Chichester and the Bristol Old Vic are just a few of the theatre projects currently on the books. Partner Steve Tompkins is thoughtful as he responds to this pronounced relationship: 'Theatre is the art of artifice, conspiring to make the audience suspend their disbelief - while architecture, with its aspirations for permanence perhaps has weightier concerns. But as for a sense of drama, of creating a shared experience in time and space - this is where architecture and theatre come together.'
Those figures on the facade are the only feature at the Everyman that might seem a touch literal. It's a gesture that runs the risk of being trite - were it in London. But for some reason, the figures seems to fit with Liverpool's character, where every Liverpudlian would indeed be counted. Such is the passion inspired by the legacy of the original Everyman, Tompkins tells me, neither the formal heritage concerns, nor the troubled budget hung most heavily over this commission, but rather the warning threat of the local cabbie who first took the architects to the site: 'If you fuck this up, you're fucking fucked.' The day of my visit to the Everyman, long rays of afternoon sun hit the facade, casting dancing un-shadows on to the brute concrete walls inside. Yes, it's sentimental, but in this town there's nothing wrong with sentiment - it is palpable all round you