Meet Nick Starr, co-founder of The Bridge Theatre

“There is something very special about being in the same room as other people all watching the same thing. There is real enjoyment in things that are congregational, especially in the time of this…” Nick Starr gestures to his smart phone, a handy prop to epitomise our modern preoccupation with all things digital.

“There is something very special about being in the same room as other people all watching the same thing. There is real enjoyment in things that are congregational, especially in the time of this…” Nick Starr gestures to his smart phone, a handy prop to epitomise our modern preoccupation with all things digital.

He is explaining why London theatre attendance has risen by 25per cent in the last decade. It is a welcome trend for the co-founder of The Bridge Theatre, London’s newest commercial venue that opened just two years ago in the shadow of Tower Bridge. 

Starr is backstage at the 900 capacity auditorium, where the sawdust is still fresh from the set build for a sell-out new play starring Dame Maggie Smith. For now, the action is very much offstage as sound engineers continuously stop and restart an old school German jazz tune until they get the acoustics just right.

Starr, along with his business partner and fellow Bridge Theatre owner Nicholas Hytner, is a theatre land hero. The duo, affectionately known as ‘The Two Nicks’, is credited with transforming the National Theatre from an inward looking British arts institution to a creative and commercial powerhouse. During a 12 year tenure, they tripled sales and sent blockbusters such as War Horse galloping into the West End.

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They left in 2014 with a plan to build and open their very own venue. What surprised many was the location next to Tower Bridge, far from the proscenium arches of the West End and almost two miles from the Brutalist South Bank. The decision was a result of a stipulation by Southwark Council that Berkeley Group’s swish new One Tower Bridge development included a cultural centre.

“It was a big raw space sunk into the side of the Thames. We had no doubt it would be brilliant,” says Starr.
It did not take them long to work out that a ten minute riverside walk from London Bridge Station and uninterrupted views of the City actually made a perfect location for their new venture. Overnight, Starr went from theatre production and marketing whizz-kid to donning a hard hat and entering the world of property development, architecture and engineering. 

It is a role he clearly loves, admitting to being a bit of a geek as he talks laser cut steel, cantilevers and sightlines that can be adjusted to the millimetre. Every aspect of the building’s design has been meticulously thought through, from the multi configurational stage, to the individual leather seats with business class sized legroom. It is a design that considers an entire theatre visit from start to finish, explains Starr. 

“The typical theatre experience began and ended in the auditorium, we challenged that,” he says. 

The Bridge’s customer journey begins with a refreshing online booking system that puts the user in control of dates, budget and times (no more trawling through frustrating online calendars). Prices are democratic, from £7.50 for under 26s to £95 for premium seating. 

“We’re not virtue signalling, it’s simply better to have a more heterogeneous audience.”

Next comes the foyer, a vast, expensively finished glass fronted space lit by 600 copper mesh lights that look like upturned flowers. A café-bar sweeps the entire length of one wall eliminating interval drinks queues.  Here, chef Fergus Henderson, from Michelin starred restaurant St John, has designed a pre-theatre menu including smoked cod’s roe and confit pig’s cheek. Then there are the toilets, the bugbear of any female theatre goer. Starr roars with laughter when asked about this (of which he is, a lot).

“There are one and half times the legal requirement, there are enough, that’s all I can say.” 

He would much rather be talking about the programme. The Bridge is a producing house, which means it makes its own shows, giving the Two Nicks complete creative control. The result is a mix of progressive writing and classics with a modern twist. The promenade audience of Hytner’s acclaimed Julius Caesar, for example, was encouraged to become part of the Roman street scene, cheering the Emperor’s return and witnessing his murder. Their plays attract big names with Ben Whishaw, Joanne Froggatt and Jim Broadbent having trod its ever moving boards.

Two years in, Starr is tight lipped about whether The Bridge is a commercial success, though the fact that The Two Nicks are planning to open another venue in Kings Cross is a strong tell. Just along the river from the Bridge Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe is an icon of Britain’s theatrical history; in years to come The Bridge may very well be held up as the blueprint for the modern theatre experience.

EXPLORE THE NEIGHBOURHOOD, STARR’S GUIDE

Gunpowder, 4 Duchess Walk, London, SE1 2SD
Home-style Indian food just around the corner from the theatre. It’s really good for flexible eating and sharing plates. 

Tom Simmons, 2 Still Walk, London, SE1 2RA
Another of our neighbours - it is Tom Simmons’ first restaurant and the food is superb. The dishes are influenced by his Welsh heritage and his lamb is a favourite.

The Coal Shed, 1 Tower Bridge, 4 Crown Square, SE1 2SE
It is super sophisticated food cooked over charcoal. It does a great pre-theatre menu for our audiences and a superb Sunday roast. 

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk