Friday, 28 October 2011

Hackney Picturehouse

Today sees the latest in the successful chain of Picturehouse cinemas to open in London. The Hackney Picturehouse is a redevelopment of The Ocean building on Mare Street, opposite Hackney Town Hall and the famous Empire. Yesterday I had a chance to look around and see what this new development offers.

Most importantly, Hackney Picturehouse is a four-screen cinema complex. Like its siblings across the capital these are not crate-rooms backed up on one another but a group of idiosyncratically realised spaces within the redeveloped building. We saw a show reel in screen 1, an impressive, almost square auditorium with a vast wall-to-wall screen and steeply raked seating. The astroturf-green upholstery bears witness to the pains that the group have clearly taken in using sustainable materials in construction and maintenance.

My favourite screen at a first cursory glance was the second, a medium-sized arrowhead of an auditorium apparently accessed by a single door in the back corner. This corner-of-the-emporium effect is characteristic of  the building as a whole. On three floors - or what appear to be three floors - there are all sorts of spaces: not only the ground floor kitchen (stocking an eponymous beer specially produced at a local brewery) and a second floor bar but also a modest third floor live performance area, the Hackney Attic (right). This will be a familiar part of the Picturehouse ecosystem for those who have been to Upstairs at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton. With its superb views out onto the square, the potential is there for this to become a good venue to add to the performing arts scene in orbit around the Empire over the road.

What makes a visit to a Picturehouse cinema so pleasant - my experience is that of the Brixton Ritzy; the club-like Picturehouses of Clapham and the Gate, Notting Hill; the Stratford Picturehouse, an oasis from the bombast of the new Westfield complex; and the Duke Of Yorks in Brighton - is the opportunity to prepare to see a film and then absorb the experience within the building. Hackney's greatest asset is its warren of spaces in which one can sit and read or work in peace (there will be free WiFi throughout) or chat with friends or other cinema-goers in recesses of the building away from the social hub of the bars.

After all it is the films that are the stock in trade of the group. Director of programming Claire Binns was keen to repeat the term 'passion' in her opening remarks at yesterday's press viewing. Such rhetoric is only valid when backed up on the screen and a glance at the listings for the first month justify the hyperbole. Alongside the mainstream movies such as The Ides Of March and the latest Twilight film, there is the spectacle of Tintin in 3D, which will look as good as it's ever going to if the 3D trailer we took in is anything to go by; Indie-sensibility cinema, like Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights; ongoing programming of LGBT and Cult & Genre pictures and all manner of one-off cinema-related events. I am planning an inaugural visit to see a relay of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Don Giovanni.

The basics of a good cinema are good quality, comfortable auditoria and helpful staff. In addition, I'd say that Picturehouses understand that a good environment that allows one to step in and out of a screening in the right frame of mind is important. To all the impressive front of house arrangments, I might add that Hackney is well-served for transport and, with the maturation of the Overground service, now a viable alternative for South-East Londoners as well as those in E8. Let's hope that it does as well as it could.

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