Mountview in Peckham  

Mountview has moved to Peckham. Forget the notion of north and south London being in different countries. Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, whose name derives from its old London phone prefix, has cheerfully crossed the divide and is now a proud Southwark resident in a sparkling, spacious new home. Susan Elkin went to explore.

Founded as Mountview Theatre Club in 1945 by Peter Coxhead and Ralph Nossek, this is the Alma Mater of, for example Brendan Coyle, Connie Fisher, Amanda Holden, Ken Stott, Tyrone Huntley and Michael Fentiman, to name just a few out of many possibilities.

Earlier this term I got a sneak preview of the jaw-dropping new £28m building – just 48 hours before Mountview management were granted full possession and the students were allowed in. The place was crawling with dozens of busy “snaggers” and it was very noisy and dusty – much racing against the clock to get the finishing touches sorted. And everyone on the premises, including me, was hard-hatted and wearing high-vis clobber.

Well I have been known to say that buildings don’t matter much and that it’s the quality of the training which counts. And, of course, I stand by that. However glitzy the building is, if the teaching isn’t up to scratch then potential students should be advised go somewhere else. But in this case, I think it really is going to make a massive difference – to Mountview students, staff and, crucially, to the local community. There’s a lot of arts (in general) in Peckham anyway and with full commitment and support from the London Borough of Southwark this new development has the potential to change many lives.

Positioned on the former wasteland (once a timber merchants) beside the canal, behind the award-winning library, Mountview now has enough space to teach all its students everything on a single site. Formerly, back in cramped Wood Green, technical theatre had, perforce, to be taught in a different building and shows staged all over the place. Now there are two on-site theatres. One is ready for action. The other, larger 200-seater will be operational by Easter 2019.)

Of course, there are full facilities for teaching therein – and there are 23 studios, of various types, on four floors. Masses of staff accommodation and storage space will mean everyone can work better and more collaboratively. Then there’s a large rehearsal room with office and kitchen attached which will be available for hire – as will music practice rooms and other facilities, all of which will help both with putting the place firmly on the map as well as generating income.

“Our new building has given us the chance to bring the entire school under one roof,” principal/artistic director, Stephen Jameson tells me over a homely cuppa amongst the packing chests and builders. “And that is already having a huge impact on the cultural cohesion of students and staff.”

The word “community” comes up in almost every sentence as I am shown round. The intention is, obviously, to retain vocational training as the core of Mountview’s work and there are no plans to increase student numbers other than, possibly, launching some new specialist courses for small numbers. Mountview has done this recently anyway with its imaginative MA programme.

The big change will be many more classes and activities at all levels for anyone who wants to come. “I’d like to double the number of young people who attend our Saturday sessions to at least 500, for example” says Stephen.

And there’s now plenty of scope for community and other activities. Stephen and his staff will also, for instance, work with adults of all ages including well-being (yoga etc) along with performing arts. National Youth Music Theatre will have a base in the new building. Music teachers can hire teaching rooms. Professional companies will be able to rent rehearsal space. Community groups will be able to use the theatres and of course the many student shows, staged by Mountview will be open to the public – as will the ground floor coffee shop and the roof top restaurant which has very arresting views of the London skyline.

Stephen continues: “The set-up ensures that our students experientially will have a first hand and realistic understanding of what it means to be a working actor in a large cultural building. The proximity to the theatre companies using our rehearsal and office space will set a professional standard and raise their aspirations.”

So committed is the arts-enthusiastic London Borough of Southwark to all this, that it has lent Mountview £21m on a 35 year, modest rate fixed-rate, mortgage as well as giving it a grant of over £6m. The rest of the cost has come – or will do – from fund raising, personal donations and trusts and foundations.

I wish you well in your new home, Mountview, and look forward to seeing a show in one your lovely theatres.