The Camden Theatre. The Camden Hippodrome Theatre. The Camden Hippodrome Picture Theatre. A BBC recording studio. The Music Machine. The Camden Palace. Koko. The changing names of this former theatre and music venue on Camden High Street in north London tell a story of shifts in entertainment culture. And now, after a £70mn restoration, a new name — The House of Koko, belonging to a private members’ club within — reflects London’s accelerating move towards membership and exclusivity.
This is a place with a deep history, a venue opened in 1900 by Victorian actor Ellen Terry, in which Charlie Chaplin, the Goons and the young Rolling Stones performed. It was where punk exploded in the 1970s, the Clash somehow coexisting with Camden’s premier mirror-balled disco. This was where the New Romantics arrived in clouds of hairspray and blusher for Steve Strange’s club night.
It hosted the big, hairy, heavy-metal revival gigs of the 1980s interspersed with huge gay nights, competing for the amount of leather and studs. It was where Madonna played her first London gig; the last venue AC/DC’s raucous Bon Scott was seen drinking in before dying of alcohol poisoning; a rave venue; and where everyone from Monty Python to Prince to the Prodigy performed or recorded. It had a hell of a history. And now it is back.
Architects Archer Humphryes, who have a record of transforming unlikely buildings into hyper-desirable venues, such as the Chiltern Firehouse, have done the heavy lifting, amalgamating the Hope & Anchor pub into the complex, restoring the theatre to a deep red and gilt plush, with just the right amount of fin de siècle garish glamour, and piling up complex layers of extra structure to create a labyrinth of clubby rooms, cafés and booths. Interior designers Pirajean Lees have done the rest, making the back end look intimate, cool and inviting.
It is a little difficult to square the sticky-carpeted, sleazy pub and this faded (to put it gently) venue with the kind of money spent on the project, but promoter and owner Olly Bengough clearly felt it was worth it.
It is a remarkable renaissance. Koko looked a little cursed. Crumbling and gooey, it was a mess and even during construction a fire tore through the site, destroying the dome which crowns it and delaying the project. But that dome has been reborn as a remarkable, timber-lined party room with a cocktail bar at its centre and seats around the edge. Not an inch of space here has been wasted.
The restored theatre, a 1,600-capacity room which can host anything from a club night to a large band with full rig, is better than it was. Previously a shabby magnolia-painted interior, it has been tarted up, its rich, tacky-Edwardiana plaster details picked out in gold. A balcony bar spills out on to the front, giving surprising views north towards Hampstead Heath, but more surprising is the repurposing of the back of house.
The former backstage and fly tower have been made into another, smaller venue, with a wraparound balcony and a grid ceiling of the old theatrical flying gear. It is an intimate, tight and intriguing new space, with a hint of backstage voyeurism, unlike anything else in the city. It is supplemented by surviving details such as the timber cleats for the ropes and rusted but retained theatrical machinery.
The architects have created a series of corridors and small spaces which stitch together the venue and the private rooms, club and booths at the back so that you are constantly moving through surprising spaces, making unexpected connections. Walking through the building is in itself a theatrical act, penetrating an architecture which keeps revealing new rooms.
What had been the pub has become Cafe Koko, a laid-back restaurant and bar and spill-out for the theatre. Outside, the old pub’s green tiles and frontage have been retained and restored; inside, its walls are newly clad in rock posters and garish art, much of it “inspired” by Camden’s culture.
The rest of the building has been rebuilt and expanded, in scale with the old neighbourhood and the history of workshops on the site, so that it looks (a little) like a row of disparate historic premises. These house that complex network of private rooms, bars and booths, a nest of spaces culminating in a rooftop bar and a kind of oddly attractive 1970s winter garden. This is the House of Koko, the private members’ section of the development which, presumably, pays for the rest to carry on.
It is a seductive set of spaces which range from a jazz bar (with the best new carpet I’ve seen in ages, based on a smoking cigarette) to a restaurant via a corridor of booths to listen to vinyl records and have cocktails prepared in intimate groups. Reminiscent of an old Pullman railway carriage with that sense of space-saving luxury, the whole thing is beautifully made, a meticulously veneered and engineered cigar-box of tricks. There’s also a recording and radio station and a series of spots for impromptu performances, assuming artists might come in and jam a little after the sweaty exertions of the big gig.
A nervousness that this represents the gentrification of the city’s music scene, a massive shift from Camden’s grubby, scuzzy, druggy essence, is understandable but perhaps misplaced. If this infrastructure of privatised pleasure for members is a mechanism for supporting a music venue in an era when they are disappearing fast, then so be it.
The revival of this grand old hall by the prolific WGR Sprague, who also designed many West End theatres (including the Gielgud and the Aldwych), is a wonderful thing. It sits in all its pretentious, domed Italianate glory on this shabby junction, a relic of the music hall and a record of performance and popular culture, still changing, still adapting, scarred, luxurious, a little tacky and a tad sleazy. Which all sounds just about right.
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