The Shed

The National Theatre unveils its new temporary theatre space, designed by architects Haworth Tompkins.

London’s Southbank has been given an injection of colour, thanks to the National Theatre’s new temporary theatre space. The Shed, designed by architects Haworth Tompkins and built in just under a year, is a striking, exciting structure, which heralds the start of a multi-million pound redesign of one of Britain's most iconic cultural institutions.

It is large, red and angular. Four chimneys shoot up from each corner of the timber-clad building, puncturing its grey surroundings, playfully willing you to explore inside. It couldn’t be more dissimilar to The National, whose concrete structure represents a history of British theatre that can seem exclusive. “We wanted The Shed to feel welcoming,” says Steve Tompkins, co-partner of architects Haworth Tompkins. “I love the main building but I’m realistic about its flaws. At the time it was designed, there was nothing to look at on the South Bank, there was no river walk. So as a consequence it’s quite impenetrable from the outside.” Erected in-part to tackle this issue, The Shed will temporarily replace the Cottesloe theatre, which has been demolished as part of the £70million redevelopment programme affecting a huge proportion of the National Theatre. Focusing on re-energising the theatre, The Shed offers the National a chance to experiment with new forms of theatre.

Like the Cottesloe, it is a small studio theatre, seating up to 250 people. Currently set up in a thrust stage format for Tanya Ronder’s play Table - running from 9 April to 18 May - it is an intimate and flexible space, in which two tiers of black seats sit so close to the stage that it will be nigh on impossible for performers to ignore them. “The Shed emboldens the managing team and artists to take risks,” Tompkins adds. “It’s a bit dangerous, a bit edgy. But it’s still accessible.”

While from the outside the building may seem to perch, playfully, teasingly on the edge of its parent theatre, you can only access the space by going through the main building – the two are seamlessly joined. Once inside, it doesn’t feel tacked on. Rather, it works with the original structure, enhancing and exciting the theatre’s ground floor foyers.

The Shed is made almost entirely out from rudimentary materials such as steel, plastic and timber. And Tompkins doesn’t try to disguise them. A long wooden bar stands to the right of the entrance to the space, and wooden benches, tables and stools are scattered around the foyer. It's reminiscent of the Underbelly venue at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – rugged, but ready to be used and enjoyed.

“We don’t want people to feel manipulated,” says Tompkins. “That’s the worst thing you can you do as an architect. There is a whole generation of people who are positively allergic to being manipulated by design. So there’s an aesthetic of under-designed architecture. Obviously you can’t create something like this without designing it, but you can do it in an open-ended way where people feel comfortable to be themselves.” In this sense, they have triumphed. Almost all of the solid walls are covered with black chalk boards. Instead of plasticated signs, information has been scrawled on walls and doors in white chalk. Casual and unassuming, the interior of The Shed juxtaposes wonderfully with its loud exterior.

The Shed will remain in place until February next year, by which time the Cottesloe will have been renovated, ready to reopen as the Dorfman theatre. In the mean time, it offers the National ample opportunity to experiment with an exciting programme befitting this unique setting.

The Shed, designed by Haworth Tompkins. Photo: Philip Vile
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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times