Features Walthamstow

Inside EMD cinema a year before it re-opens as ‘Soho Theatre Walthamstow’

After almost two decades and tens of millions of pounds, the building is finally set to reopen
By Victoria Munro

The new 950-seat venue is due to open early next year
The new 950-seat venue is due to open early next year

The EMD cinema was officially renamed Soho Theatre Walthamstow today, one year from its expected grand opening.

The £30million restoration, meant to cost just under £20m when plans were first agreed three years ago, began in September 2020 and will create a 950-seat comedy and theatre venue.

Waltham Forest Council estimates it will add about £52m to the local economy in the next decade and are investing £1.79m in the surrounding area to encourage the night time economy.

At a ceremony today, council leader Grace Williams and future artist-in-residence Alessandro Babalola, best known for his role in Top Boy, spoke of their ambitions for the space. 

Alessandro, who grew up in Leyton, said it was amazing to finally have a theatre opening in the borough, something he had hoped to see since he was 13 years old.

He said: “I used to tell people Walthamstow was like New York; growing up, this was Central London to me. 

“Soho Theatre Walthamstow is going to be a real firework in London. We will be bringing world-class entertainment to people’s doorsteps and showing people this part of London really means business.

“This all came from a 20-year campaign by local community members to ensure this breathtaking space remained an entertainment venue.”

He recalled how a performance at the original Soho Theatre “set [him] on the path” to his acting career, changing his “whole perspective on what art could be”.

He now hopes to repeat this revelation for the residents of Waltham Forest, telling the Echo: “Theatre, of all the artistic mediums, is often the least appreciated by wider society but, if you love film, there’s no reason you shouldn’t love theatre. It brings all forms of art together, there’s nothing you can’t do on the stage.

“I shouldn’t really be saying this but I’d love to put on an amazing space play here, with the size of the space we have got I think you can go beyond the limits of the human imagination. 

“Also, grime is one of my favourite genres of music and Walthamstow is one of its original birthplaces so I’d love to put on a musical inspired by that.”

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The cinema first opened as the Granada in 1930 and closed its doors in 2003, after which the building was sold to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. 

The church made several attempts to win planning permission to convert the building, all of which were rejected, before giving up and selling to the council.

Grace Williams told those gathered: “The last time I was here, there was not even a floor. It’s been two decades since this place last closed and it’s an amazing achievement to have got here.

“It’s brilliant you will be able to just get off the Tube and go to the theatre, as well as visiting the other night time economy that will be here. People want reasons to go out in their local area on Saturday night – cultural destinations do not begin and end in zone one.

“I know Alfred Hitchcock would be proud if he could look down at us today. It was this cinema that inspired his love of film and that will form the next generation of creatives in Waltham Forest.”

Remarking on the ceiling, one of many historic features being painstakingly preserved with the help of Historic England, she said: “You only have to look up to see the amount of history in this place.

“The refurbishment will acknowledge the original Art Deco and Moorish construction, all the way through to the 1960s Bollywood-inspired redecoration.”

The council’s project director Michael Rush told the Echo that the goal with the restoration was not to recreate a specific point in the building’s lifetime but to “allow the building to tell its story” through an “arrested decay approach”, salvaging features from multiple decades.

However, he noted there were some areas where “compromises” were necessary to ensure the building was “up to modern standards”, such as two areas of ceiling decorated in a Bollywood-style that would no longer be visible in order to provide room for heat pumps.

The venue’s organ, which was saved and placed in storage, will also not be reintroduced before the building’s grand opening next year, although he said the work had been “carefully planned so the possibility” of reinstalling it at a later date still exists.

The theatre will be the biggest venue of its kind in outer London and is expected to cement Walthamstow town centre as an “emerging cultural quarter”.

While there will be space for a pub inside the building, it has yet to be decided if this will go to The Victoria, a queer-friendly pub that used to be on-site.

To ensure the “benefits of that investment are felt as widely as possible”, the council recently agreed a facelift for the surrounding area, which will involve.creating a “theatrical promenade” from Walthamstow Central Tube station to the venue and improving street lighting in the area in an attempt to make it feel safer at night.

Cllr Williams told the Echo that, as part of their focus on town centre safety, the council will be launching an app next week to make it easier for people to report street harassment.

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