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The Saville Theatre project

Why are plans to turn Covent Garden’s ODEON into a theatre so controversial?

Developers want to turn the building back into its original form as a West End theatre – but some aren’t happy about the plans

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Plans have been underway for some time to reinvigorate the old Saville Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. Currently operating as the ODEON Covent Garden, the opulent building – with its famous exterior frieze – opened in 1931 and operated as a theatre for almost 40 years, the last few of which it was leased by Beatles manager Brian Epstein who presented a variety of classic rock acts there including Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. 

In 1970 the Saville became a cinema, and that’s how it’s spent over half of its life. But recent years have seen it looking rather tired and now plans are well underway to restore it to theatre status, with interest from Cirque du Soleil in using it as a permanent London base.

However, it’s not as simple as restoring the Saville to how it was, a 1,426-seat single-use venue. And therein lies the source of objections to the new design from architects SPPARC.

Saville Theatre proposal

Cirque du Soleil would be housed in a all-new, 400-seat venue underneath the building, with a bar, restaurant and admin facilities on the ground floor, and a boutique hotel above. Under proposals unveiled in March this would necessitate a six-storey extension on top of the Grade II-listed building.

This has in turn drawn complaints from the Theatres Trust and Historic England.

The Theatres Trust has, in essence, objected to the fact the theatre is relatively small, quite light on backstage facilities, and uses little of the historic space, ie it’s not so much restoring a historic theatre as building a new theatre under a hotel which used to be a theatre, if you follow.

Meanwhile Historic England’s issues are not dissimilar, pointing to the fact the original building will have ‘no real cultural function’ and fretting at the drastic nature of the extension and repurposing.

It’s a thorny one: a new theatre and hotel are potentially a better use of the facilities than a semi-decrepit cinema, but there is something rather perverse about creating a theatre but not restoring the historic theatre space. It will be intriguing to see how it develops.

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