Immersive theatre company Punchdrunk ‘on cusp’ of agreeing move to Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal

Sleep No More - Annie Darcy Band
Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More – a take on Macbeth – has played in London, Boston and New York City (photo of the Boston production by Erich via Creative Commons)

Immersive theatre company Punchdrunk is “on the cusp” of signing up to move into Woolwich, Greenwich Council’s assistant chief executive told councillors last week.

The company, which stages productions where the audience are free to wander around and take part in the shows, is due to be the anchor tenant in the council’s £31 million Woolwich Creative District project, which is due to begin opening in Berkeley Homes’ Royal Arsenal complex next year.

While the council is keen to keep Punchdrunk’s name under wraps until the deal is finally done, the company’s involvement was revealed in a Times story in March, and the firm’s involvement was discussed at a planning meeting earlier this month.

Punchdrunk opening up business in Woolwich would be a major coup for the council, which predicts its presence would be worth £22m alone each year. The company’s productions have a huge and dedicated following, and it has set up operations in New York City and Shanghai.

But there is still nervousness at Woolwich Town Hall at the cost of the project – and whether people beyond the Arsenal walls will benefit.

Woolwich Creative District
Greenwich Council’s “creative district” plan, with the current Heritage Centre building in the centre

“We are hopefully on the cusp of signing our anchor tenant and we are in detailed discussions with another two tenants,” assistant chief executive Katrina Delaney told a scrutiny panel last Thursday.

“The business plan for the project is that it is 70% community use and 30% commercial use, on the basis that commercial income supports the whole development and it doesn’t become dependent on council resources or funding.”

Delaney was careful not to mention Punchdrunk, which is named in council documents, although she slipped at one point: “Now we’ve got planning consent and contractors on board, hopefully in the next few weeks we will be making an announcement about Punch- er, the immersive theatre company and we will be starting the marketing.”

She added: “We’re speaking to another very significant local artist of a much younger generation. He’s quite a big name pop star and he’s very keen to be involved, so attaching names to it should help the marketing.”

The other companies in line to take places in the development – not named in council documents – include a free dance school for children “led by a world-famous ballet dancer” and “Europe’s only professional BAME orchestra” (one group that fits this description, Chineke, which recently played at Eltham Palace).

Local groups such as Protein Dance, the Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair and Dash Arts are also due to join at a later stage.

The project has been costed at £31.59m with a “delivery and contigency” budget of £11.16m.

‘It’s an awful lot of money’

Eltham South Conservative councillor Matt Clare said: “I’m still concerned we don’t have tenants who have actually signed up, and committed – that worries me.

“I’ll be honest here, £31 million to £42-£43 million is an awful lot of money. I don’t want to be a killjoy, but we have 17,000 people on the housing waiting list and significant issues with funding care… personally, I’m not convinced this is a top priority.

“I’m happy to be convinced, but I don’t see any real concrete figures here.”

Delaney said: “We can’t name the tenants until we’ve actually signed – the back and forth with the anchor tenants’ lawyers is really about detail about what works.

“I completely appreciate that until it is announced there will be some anxiety but we are as confident as we can be about the signature.”

The council’s new assistant director of community, culture and leisure, Takki Sulaiman, said Punchdrunk was expected to attract 187,000 visitors alone each year.

Asked by Clare how much confidence he had in that figure, Sulaiman replied: “Once I’ve signed it, a lot of confidence, because the organisation will be held to that.”

Royal Arsenal
Greenwich Council hopes the Cultural Quarter will bridge the Woolwich divide – but Delaney admitted town centre businesses may not benefit

‘Reclaiming the Arsenal’

But asked by the Labour councillor for Greenwich West, Aidan Smith, what benefit the project would have beyond the walls of the Arsenal, Delaney said she could not guarantee that businesses elsewhere in the town centre would benefit.

She said: “There some physical works being done to make the crossing [of Plumstead Road] easier. One of the big tests was the Great Get Together [council festival] this summer which covered both areas, and we found lots of people were crossing the street and coming into the Arsenal.

“This is kind of reclaiming the Arsenal for the people of Woolwich, people have felt there is nothing over there for them and so we have been very careful with the tenants we have discussed to bring an offer that doesn’t seem elitist, that there is something for them, and there has already been some outreach work in schools in Thamesmead.

“It’s easy to think we’re just going to focus on the Arsenal, but there are lots of people in Charlton, Abbey Wood, Plumstead and Thamesmead who don’t come into Woolwich. So we want to make sure that this is a draw for people to come into the Arsenal and feel it is for them and that it is not just about expensive housing.

“We can’t guarantee that restaurants in Woolwich will benefit but what we are aiming to do is bring some really really attractive companies into the town so that people will be coming through and the whole town will feel up.”

Selected parts of the meeting, including sessions on the Greenwich Heritage Centre and Greenwich Leisure Limited, can be seen on this YouTube playlist.

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