Say goodbye to the Ovalhouse

The Ovalhouse theatre, which is currently right next to the Oval Underground Station, is in its final season in its current home. It moves to new premises in Brixton next year, where it is due to reopen in spring 2021.

So, it is time to say goodbye to Kennington after more than 80 years as a community venue and more than five decades as a theatre.

Let’s take a look at some facts about one of London’s well-loved fringe spaces. Note: although it was called Oval House for quite a large portion of its life, I have amended this to Ovalhouse throughout for consistency, to reflect its current name.

Facts 1 – 10

The Ovalhouse@fifty scrapbook

The roots of Ovalhouse can be traced back to the 1930s and its foundations, as Christ Church (Oxford) Clubs, by the graduates of Christchurch College, Oxford.

Ovalhouse was a key venue for the black, gay and women’s theatre movements of the 1970s and 1980s.

Ovalhouse survived a threat to its funding in 2003 when a grant of £50k was reinstated by the Association of Local Government (ALG). This grant acknowledged its importance to audiences, and especially young people, across Lambeth.

Prior to 2010 the theatre was referred to as Oval House, with a rebranding to Ovalhouse being completed shortly afterward.

It is a cutting-edge theatre and arts centre with two performance spaces, a cafe, and an art gallery.

It celebrated its half-century in 2013 with a season of shows under the banner of “Counterculture 50”.

Alumni of the Ovalhouse theatre company include actors Pierce Brosnan and Tim Roth. One of the skills Brosnan acquired there was fire eating. Roth entered auditions for Made in Britain there.

It survived fire damage to the box office in 2015.

It has gained a reputation for experimental theatre shows.

Ovalhouse first planned to move to Brixton in 2017. It ran a youth-led arts and performance festival there that year, highlighting the area’s cultural diversity.

Facts 11-20

The Ovalhouse building

In 2015 a feminist cafe, run by seven immigrant female chefs, was opened in the Ovalhouse, which supported it rent-free all year.

It received a £3m Arts Council grant to assist with its move in 2017.

In 2018 it was the venue for the Emcees Awards, which recognise fundraising in the arts and culture sector.

Numerous important cultural figures have started their careers at the Ovalhouse, from David Hare to Stella Duffy.

The land where the Ovalhouse currently stands will become a 95-room hotel owned by Cricket Surrey.

Rikki Beadle-Blair got the inspiration to write the film Stonewall after seeing a lesbian and gay cabaret evening from Greenwich Village at the Ovalhouse in 1978.

The current Demolition Party season, the final in Vauxhall, invites artists to collaborate with structural engineers in their productions to demolish parts of the building.

As part of Lambeth’s Power in Youth Festival in 1998, After Windrush commemorated the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, the first ship to sail from the West Indies.

In 2000 a pair of Harold Pinter plays, Mountain Language and Landscape, were performed in British Sign Language (BSL) at Ovalhouse, with an integrated voice over of the original text.

The Poetry Society’s Respect Slam, meant to encourage inner-city children to engage with verse, took place at the Ovalhouse in 2004.

Facts 21-30

The current Ovalhouse building
The current Ovalhouse building

Ovalhouse has never been solely a theatre. At different times it’s been integral in the support of huge social movements, it’s always been a place where new methodologies have been developed, whether they’re experimental theatre forms or participatory pedagogy and methodology. It’s always been a place that’s offered as much socially as it has artistically, as politically, as financially, as practically, as a roof over people’s heads.”

Deborah Bestwick, artistic director of the Ovalhouse for more than two decades, in 2015

Peter and Joan Oliver developed the Christ Church (Oxford) United Clubs into the Ovalhouse, substituting drama for football, and and allowing new rock groups a place to rehearse. Oval House Theatre became the cradle of a new arts movement in the 1960s.

Bette Bourne joined the New York gay cabaret group Hot Peaches after seeing them at the Ovalhouse in 1976; he later formed his own troupe, Bloolips.

The theatre received a large donation from the Princess Diana Memorial Fund in 2005, to support courses for young refugees.

In 2010, the play Memories of an Hermaphrodite by Sarah Leaver increased awareness of the 30k intersex individuals living in the UK at that time.

The London via Lagos Festival showcased a selection of British-Nigerian plays at the Ovalhouse in 2011.

In 2011, Platforma helped refugees based in South London to increase their English fluency and engage with the wider community.

The play When Women Wee, which was later turned into the film Powder Room, was developed at the Ovalhouse. It was inspired by a series of interviews with women about their loo break chatter.

For its fiftieth anniversary in 2013, Ovalhouse set up an ongoing scrapbook of stories and anecdotes.

The Demolition Party season at the Ovalhouse will conclude with four companies taking over the venue with parties that give new meaning to “bring the house down”. Bar Wotever, The Cocoa Butter Club, Brazilian Wax, and The R.A.P. Party will ensure the theatre closes with big hits and a smashing good time.