The Tiny London Theater Hosting Elton John’s New Musical
In October, Elton John’s new musical will receive its world premiere. Rather than being at the West End or Broadway theater you might expect, Tammy Faye will be performed at the Almeida, a 350-seat theater in the London suburb of Islington, a 19th century building just off the area’s main shopping street, surrounded by residential houses. Co-written with Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters and writer James Graham, it will be a musical about the life of American TV evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. It will run at the Almeida until December 3.
Islington isn’t your London suburb and the Almeida is much more than an archetypal small neighborhood theater. A short bus ride from the center of London, two recent Prime Ministers – Tony Blair and Boris Johnson – have both lived in the borough. While its white stucco houses have traditionally seen a mix of council tenants and home-owners living alongside each other, recent years have seen a skew towards the latter. And the Almeida has been an important part of the area’s fabric since the 1980s.
Originally built as a library and lecture hall for the Islington Literary and Scientific Society in 1837 and later becoming a Salvation Army building, the Almeida was bought by Pierre Audi in 1972. At the time a recent graduate from Oxford University, Audi decided that the near derelict building should become a venue for the performing arts. Its first artistic director, he instigated a programme of experimental works from – among others – Deborah Warner, Simon McBurney, and Robert Lepage. Audi is now Artistic Director of the Park Avenue Armory.
Between 1990 and 2002, Audi was followed by Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent as joint artistic directors, followed by Michael Attenborough until 2013. Recent performers include Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave in Richard III, Sam West and Simon Russell Beale. Between 1999 and 2003, the Almeida saw a complete restoration, primarily funded by the Arts Council and the National Lottery.
The Almeida has continued to mix experimental works with new interpretations of classic plays. Later this season will see Rebecca Frecknall’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the UK premiere of The Secret Life of Bees, based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd. In February, another new work Women, Beware the Devil, by playwright Lulu Radcza will be directed – as will Tammy Faye – by Rupert Goold, the Amedia’s current Artistic Director, who was appointed nine years ago.
Says Nick Curtis, chief theatre critic of the Evening Standard: “The Almeida punches way above its weight in terms of cultural impact. Where else could you find an Elton John musical about Tammy Faye Bakker, a post-apocalyptic drama inspired by The Simpsons, and a verse play about Prince Charles becoming king? Though the building is from the 19th century – and its fabric and colorful history add to the atmosphere on any visit – it’s only been a producing theater for just over 40 years, but it’s been a key part of the capital’s – and the nation’s – theatrical tapestry for each of those five decades.”