Punchdrunk comes to Woolwich: Immersive theatre company confirmed for £31m creative district

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 has been confirmed as the lead tenant in Greenwich Council’s £31m Woolwich Creative District project.

The company, which stages hugely popular productions where audience are members free to wander around and take part in the shows, has long been linked with the project, based in Berkeley Homes’s Royal Arsenal development.

Punchdrunk is currently based in Tottenham, but at Woolwich it will be housed in Buildings 17, 18 and 19, centred on the old Firepower museum.

The council had been at pains to keep the company’s involvement with the Creative District scheme under wraps until today, but Punchdrunk had already been undertaking some community work in the borough. Today’s announcement had been long anticipated, with a senior council officer claiming a deal was imminent in October.

Royal Arsenal
Greenwich Council hopes the Cultural Quarter will bridge the Woolwich divide

The agreement represents a major coup for the council, which has predicted Punchdrunk’s presence could 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.

Punchdrunk
Punchdrunk will move into the old Firepower museum site

Peter Higgin, the company’s director of enrichment [sic] said: “At Punchdrunk we’re really looking forward to moving our company base to Woolwich and joining the Creative District.

“We’ve already started work in the borough, touring our flagship literacy project The Lost Lending Library to primary schools and we’re looking forward to developing new projects with children, young people and the local community. It’s an exciting time for Woolwich and we’re proud to be joining a vibrant arts community.”

Former Firepower museum
The Firepower museum closed in 2016

The announcement comes after a number of blows to Woolwich in recent months, with the closure of the Street Feast street food market only confirmed this week. Much hope for regenerating Woolwich has hung on the opening of Crossrail, which missed its December opening date and is unlikely to see its first trains this year.

Indeed, the Creative District project seems to have slipped alongside Crossrail – last October, Greenwich Council said the Creative District would begin operations this year – today’s announcement gives the opening date as 2020. The formal decision notice about Punchdrunk’s arrival, which would give more details, has not yet been published.

Greenwich Heritage Centre
The former Greenwich Heritage Centre, Building 41, will become a performance venue for up to 1,800 people

Today’s announcement also provides its opportunity for a bit of political theatre – the Punchdrunk deal is still subject to a call-in by councillors, who could challenge the decision. There is considerable nervousness on the Labour benches about whether the Creative District will actually benefit Woolwich residents or simply provide a boost for Berkeley Homes’ redevelopment of the Arsenal, while Conservative councillors have voiced worries about the cost of the project. There is also still anger about the botched closure of the Greenwich Heritage Centre, which has left Greenwich as the only borough without a readily-available archive service.

Council leader Danny Thorpe said: “The development of Woolwich Creative District begins a new chapter in this history of Woolwich and will make the town a destination for Londoners and visitors from across the country.

“Punchdrunk is a truly world class organisation and I’m thrilled that so many internationally renowned artists and companies are making Woolwich their home; cementing its position as a new cultural hub, which will benefit communities across the wider borough. We are absolutely committed to ensuring local people feel the effects of this development by embedding community benefits into leases and contracts across the board.”

Other tenants in the Creative District project include Chineke! orchestra, Woolwich-based Protein Dance and the Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair. Plans also include turning the former ammunition factory – Building 41, the old Greenwich Heritage Centre – into a performance venue for up to 1,800 people.

Story amended at 6pm on Friday to clarify that Punchdrunk is moving into buildings 17, 18 and 19 on the Arsenal site, and not building 41, which will be a separate venue.

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