Stay of execution for historic theatre

Planning committee demands theatre provision be included in new facility, reports James Cracknell

Intimate Theatre
Intimate Theatre in Green Lanes is on the Enfield Local Heritage List

Plans to demolish a historic theatre in Palmers Green have stalled after councillors demanded that a new facility set to be built in its place be capable of hosting theatrical performances.

Enfield Council’s planning committee had voted to grant planning permission for the redevelopment of St Monica’s Church Hall in Green Lanes – commonly known as Intimate Theatre – more than a year ago, sanctioning its demolition and replacement with a block of flats and a community hall. But councillors were forced to reconsider the application at a meeting last night (Tuesday 18th).

Planning officers explained the original decision to grant permission needed to be revisited after a series of legal and technical hitches. Theatres Trust, a national body representing British theatres, had threatened to launch a judicial review of the committee’s November 2020 decision, disputing some of the advice that councillors had been given prior to their vote. With some planning policies having also been updated in the last year, such as the London Plan, the council took legal advice and decided “it was necessary to refer this application back to committee” for a fresh decision.

Shortly after opening, St Monica’s Church Hall was leased to a theatre company in 1935 and renamed Intimate Theatre. It then made history when it staged the first play broadcast live on UK television in 1946, with famous names including Richard Attenborough, Roger Moore and David Bowie performing there over the years.

The building’s use as a theatre declined in recent years, however, and because of the limitations of the venue, owners St Monica’s Parish wants to replace it with a facility that can be adapted for different community uses. A petition of 4,513 signatures – launched by the Save the Intimate Theatre campaign – objected to the plans, while a petition in support gained 1,500 signatures.

Before Tuesday’s debate, councillors were told the application was “identical” to the plans previously approved, with the only difference being some additional supporting information.

Jenny Harris, a planning consultant representing St Monica’s, told councillors that the existing building was in “poor condition” and that the new facility would be “modern, energy efficient and accessible”. She added that there was “significant capacity” at other theatres in Enfield.

Plans for the new St Monica's Hall, which will replace Intimate Theatre
Plans for the new St Monica’s Hall, which is set to replace Intimate Theatre

Conservative committee member Mike Rye said he thought the church had allowed the building’s usage as a theatre to fall into decline and that the “exceptional circumstances” required to justify the loss of the facility “had not been proven”. He added: “There is nothing here [in the plans] that allows performance of any quality. There’s no lighting rig, no stage, no dressing rooms. This is a completely different community facility […] the design is pretty utilitarian.”

Hass Yusuf, a Labour committee member who was the only councillor to vote against the theatre’s demolition in November 2020, reiterated his opposition and said he considered it to be “vandalism against the arts”. He added: “This is an attack on the arts, culture and heritage of Enfield. The new building adds nothing to the character of the area and doesn’t address our housing needs.”

To help fund the new community facility, the redevelopment plans include a three-storey block of flats at the rear of the site, providing six two-bed homes. But the council’s report on the plans noted it would result in the loss of “an asset of community value” and “non-designated heritage asset”. The council’s conservation officer also said the existing building was “a rare survivor of a repertory theatre building of the inter-war period” and was one of the last remaining local theatres in London.

Labour member Doug Taylor, who abstained on the plans at the previous vote, said St Monica’s had given “scant regard” for the heritage of the existing building and asked whether it was possible to add a condition requesting some of its historic features be preserved.

Later in the debate, it was proposed that the plans be deferred to give St Monica’s a chance to “explore whether the explicit use of theatre performance can be retained” by including provision for a moveable stage. This motion was then unanimously approved by the committee.

Reacting to the vote afterwards, Tom Clarke, a national planning advisor for Theatres Trust, said: “While the deferral to seek further commitment to theatre performance may help alleviate some of our concerns about the loss of a community theatre, it would still see the loss of a unique heritage asset. We were pleased some committee members were critical of this and of the design of the replacement building. Theatres Trust believes that there is an opportunity to retain and refurbish the existing theatre to better provide a wider range of community facilities without the need to demolish and build anew.”