Roundabout: This flat-pack theatre gets the show on the road

Duncan Macmillan’s play Lungs took my breath away. It kicks off with a couple’s tense conversation over the future. Hurtling through anxieties like “Is this the kind of world I want to bring a child into?” and “Are we even meant to be together?” the female character stumbles, stutters, contradicts herself and confuses her boyfriend with her constant questioning of everything and inability to make a decision on anything.

The opening scene is set in an IKEA, surely a common venue for such squabbles, but an especially nice touch given the play is put on by Roundabout, the first ever flat-pack plug-and-play theatre. Created and run by London-based theatre company Paines Plough, its ‘in-the-round’ structure literally lets you see every angle of the two beautifully written—though, interestingly, unnamed—characters.

Paines Plough has been commissioning, producing and touring new plays across the UK since 1974, tacking a pin on a map whenever they put on a show in a new place. A few years ago, they started to spot gaps.

“For a country so small and populous there are huge areas where there are no theatres,” explains co-artistic director, James Grieve. “To add more pins to our map, we decided to build a portable theatre, to take it right into the heart of those parts of the country.”

Popping up in school halls, warehouses and fields around Britain requires a fair bit of travel, so James says they wanted to make the theatre as energy efficient as possible. “Big energy consumption comes from lighting in traditional theatres,” he notes. “So that’s what we thought longest and hardest about.”

Luckily, just as they embarked on what James calls their “pie in the sky idea”, new developments in LED lighting meant they could power entire productions from 13-amp plug sockets, the same power supply used by your kettle. Add to that the fact that the theatre can be put together by just two people armed with an Allen key, and you can see they really weren’t kidding with the term ‘plug-and-play’.

This makes for an entirely different kind of theatre experience. It’s an unfussy, modern design, a pleasing counterpoint to the stuffy velveteen seating of traditional theatres. The bubblegum-bright cushions and untreated reclaimed wood reinforce its on-the-road feel.

Knowing it was only temporary, I wanted to catch one of their London productions before it was too late. In just over an hour, I’d been moved to tears. Despite a dialogue that touches on overpopulation, climate change and political unrest, Lungs is ultimately about two people in love, navigating their way through the practicalities of modern life.

If Roundabout is designed to bring theatre to people who know nothing about it, the power of Lungs lies in its common themes—a couple’s mutual dislike of each others’ parents, or taking on jobs they hate just to pay the rent. “We work with writers who approach big stories and topics that are universal, encouraging them to write openly and warmly,” says James, “It doesn’t have to be overly intellectual.”

Just as theatre can bring a breath of fresh air to the most remote communities, so too can great storytelling breathe life and understanding into even the most serious topics.

Roundabout is at the London Southbank Centre until 17 July, with three different plays showing (including Lungs). After that, it will be on the move for the rest of the year. Check the schedule to find out when it’s coming near you.