The Bridewell was created by Carol Metcalfe in 1994, converted from a disused swimming pool. There are no plans as yet to turn the venue into anything else.
The theatre opened with a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures and — although it diversified — it remained a specialist music theatre house. Among the American composers whose works it introduced to London were Adam Guettel and Jason Robert Brown.
Richard Jordan, a British producer who presented two shows at the Bridewell, George Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing in 1999 and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in 2000, told Playbill On-Line that “losing the Bridewell as a house for musicals is a tragedy.” He explained what made the Bridewell so valuable, and so tricky: “The Bridewell has got 175 seats, and a show would typically be booked in for five to six weeks, which makes it costly to produce in. Sweeney Todd was a promenade production, so that increased capacity by 25 percent. But although both my shows there were among the venue’s biggest-ever sellers, Of Thee I Sing only recouped, and Sweeney made a very small profit.
But that was the point of the place. It was judged in a different way to the West End houses, as a small, loving home for musicals which belonged in a smaller place. Bridewell hits like Purlie or Floyd Collins couldn’t have been done in the West End, because they’d suddenly be competing with The Lion King. Romance, Romance was a Bridewell smash, and a disaster when it transferred to the Gielgud. Because 175 seats full every night is a triumph at the Bridewell, and a huge flop in Theatreland.”
Labelling the fact that the Bridewell received no significant government subsidy “a disgrace,” Jordan largely attributes the fate of the Bridewell to the fact that musicals, despite being expensive to stage and huge money makers when they work, are not seen with the same seriousness by funding bodies as are straight plays. But will the Bridewell company survive as nomads? Jordan thinks it will be tough. “The Bridewell had a fixed identity. They’d built up an audience, were in a fairly central location, and it’s always easier having your own building. If your show needs money, you can better manage issues like overtime, or cut costs from the building’s budget. You can’t do that as a tenant. And it’s not certain whether the audience will go with them. The Royal Shakespeare Company moved out of the Barbican and went to the Roundhouse, and their audience didn’t follow. The Bridewell will have to forge a new reputation as a touring company, and that could take time.”