“The Space is special. It’s intimate, it’s friendly, it can be cosy and I should think, if you were watching the right thing, you could be terrified out of your wits.”
High praise for the tiny Isle Of Dogs theatre from the legendary Sir Ian McKellen, who has been involved with the building on Westferry Road for its entire 20-year history, although he doesn’t visit as often as he would like.
Sitting on the sofa in his Limehouse home in front of a windowsill covered in movie and theatre memorabilia, including Gandalf figurines, it’s easy to see why Sir Ian struggles to carve out the time.
As he lit a cigarette, the 77-year-old two-time Oscar nominee recalled the time when he was approached by Robert Richardson, credited with creating The Space, and asked to become its principal patron.
“Twenty years ago, Docklands didn’t look anything like it does now,” Sir Ian said, “and it would have been easy to identify where I live. He just came and knocked on the front door.
“When he spoke to me, he put it in personal terms because his young wife was in a motor accident and she sadly died.
“I think just in grieving and walking up and down the Isle Of Dogs he saw this building, lying derelict and primed for demolition.”
What Robert saw was the old St Paul’s church that is thought to have served the dock workers before it went out of use in 1972 following the closure of the London Docks.
In 1989 the St Paul’s Art Trust was formed, with Robert as its project manager, and the 19th century building was purchased and renovated into an arts centre.
And Robert’s visit to Sir Ian was an attempt to convince the arts community to throw its weight behind his beloved project.
Sir Ian said: “In those days things were being pulled down at a dreadful rate without proper planning permission under the Thatcher government.
“But he managed to persuade people to come round to his idea and he bought the building very cheaply – for a pound or something.
“He was very much a one-man band. It was his idea, his passion.”
Now The Space has become a staple of the Isle Of Dogs, providing local talent with a stage to bring and develop their theatrical abilities.
And it recently held its 20th birthday celebrations, which included performances of the venue’s greatest hits and a speech by Sir Ian himself, who entertained the audience with a short piano recital and a performance, from memory, of a passage from Richard II.
Sir Ian said: “I sometimes feel a bit guilty I don’t spend more time there trying to help. I read the programme and think ‘I would love to go and see that’ but I’m usually working myself at those times. It’s a big disadvantage when you’re a working actor.”
The Lord Of The Rings and X-Men star, who’s currently appearing in No Man’s Land at the West End with his great friend Sir Patrick Stewart, added: “Those who live around there are very, very lucky. There are enough people in this area who, whether they know it or not, need The Space.
“It’s a little bit of the old Docklands that has been rescued. It still looks and feels like what it would have been. Through think and thin, The Space has come through with links to the glory days of the Docks
“But it has also become a symbol of what one man can do.”
Follow The Wharf on Twitter @the_wharf
Keep up to date with all our articles on Facebook