Mortal Mortar: Refurbishing the West EndDate: 27 January 2003
The West End is in a state - and so are many of its theatres. Mark Shenton talks to theatre owner & impresario Cameron Mackintosh who is putting his multi-millions where his mouth is by putting his own houses in order.
The current clamour over the state of the West End - the dirt and the danger, the drunks and the drugs, the traffic congestion (and about-to-come, the congestion charging) of the roads and the unreliability of public transport - is being cited as a deterrent for people from seeking their entertainment there. But it's also a useful distraction from the state of the West End theatre: the quality of the shows, the exorbitant pricing of them and the state of some of the venues you can see them in.
I love London's stock of ageing, often ailing, theatre buildings more than any other public spaces in the capital, which is just as well considering the amount of time I spend in them. I even enjoy the quirky atmosphere of sometimes elegant decay that prevails in many of them. It's all part of their 'charm' - and surely, in any case, the play's the thing we're there to see, isn't it?
But modern-day audiences, some of whom are paying up to £50 for a ticket, have a right to demand that not only is the seat they've paid for the right to occupy for two or more hours is comfortable (and preferably with an uninterrupted view of the stage), but also that the theatre itself matches the glamour of the experience they're paying to be a part of. That begins the moment they arrive at the theatre's front doors, continue through its foyers and corridors and into its bars and toilets, and finally into the auditorium itself. And it's not just the building but, of course, the staff, too: that there's a sense of welcome throughout.
While London mayor Ken Livingstone can be conveniently (if not always accurately) blamed for what happens beyond the theatre's front doors, and theatre producers for what happens on stage, there's another party who need to take responsibility for everything else that takes place within a theatre's four walls - the people who own them.
No one denies that maintaining - let alone refurbishing - these buildings is an expensive business. Bricks and mortar are not immortal, and The Theatres Trust (who seek to protect Britain's amazing heritage of theatrical buildings) estimates that an investment of more than £200 million is required for the West End's buildings to survive this century.
While lottery funding has enabled such subsidised houses as the Royal Opera House and Royal Court to be comprehensively overhauled, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote to The Independent to say, "The combined profit of all four Shaftesbury Avenue playhouses since 1945 is less than the £27 million public subsidy recently given to the Royal Court Theatre".
Fellow impresario Cameron Mackintosh (pictured), who already owns two theatres and has the freehold or lease on five more that will revert to him in the next three years, reveals to me a different statistic for two theatres over which he'll soon reclaim complete control, the Albery and Wyndham's. "As landlords there, we're on a small share of the profits over a certain figure, and for last year it was based on a figure in excess of £8 million. They had bumper shows in both theatres - Private Lives and The Play What I Wrote."
So, there is lots of money to be made from owning theatres, but it's a notoriously secretive world and not everyone is as free with the data as Mackintosh is. Nor indeed, as free to reinvest in the stock. He has recently announced an investment of £7 million to completely refurbish the Prince of Wales Theatre (See News, 10 Jan 2003) while, a decade ago, when he first took over a share in the Prince Edward, he spent £4 million on re-making what was basically a cinema with a stage into one of London's most desirable musical houses. Of that, he reports, "That money has come back time and time again. These kinds of investments have paid back. But what I also know is that, whatever happens, I will leave for my foundation, and indeed the enjoyment of future theatregoers, buildings that are in a much better state than when I got them."
£20 million more
Though final budgets haven't been established yet, Mackintosh aims to spend up to £20 million more on the other theatres as they come back under his control. "We're in the middle of planning, and what it ends up costing depends on how much our schemes are embraced by the planners, et al. Some theatres don't need as much work as others. We're starting with the Strand in March, but won't need to close it while we do it. The auditorium's in quite good nick, though it needs re-seating; but we're also looking at all the bars and expanding the public spaces. I don't just own the theatre but that part of the block with its shops and offices, so there is lots of space I'm looking at re-arranging. We'll be making new front-of-house areas that aren't currently there, and will join it all up when it's ready."
He also owns the freehold of an entire block of Shaftesbury Avenue - the Gielgud and the Queen's theatres and the bits in between - so, when those two venues revert to him, he'll be looking at a larger overhaul there, too. The large scope of her real estate "allows me to think of a proper, very comprehensive scheme that is extremely unusual to be able to do in the West End."
Not that he intends to do anything rash or uncharacteristic. Mackintosh is well aware of the significance of such playhouses to the architectural fabric of the West End itself. "The outsides of these buildings are in prime positions in London, which affects the look and feel of the West End generally. The Prince of Wales and the Strand and very much the Queen's and Gielgud are in absolutely focal positions, and the architecture of those buildings affects the look of the area." He draws comparisons with and inspiration from the Theatre Royal Haymarket and Her Majesty's theatres whose exterior works, "have made them the focal points at that end of the Haymarket".
Sadly, not all venue owners are in a position to make such an impact. "It is fantastic that Cameron has the vision and appetite to do what he is going to do to the theatres," says Really Useful Theatres chief executive Andre Ptaszynski, before adding: "The fact of life is that the ownership structure of Cameron's theatres is extremely straightforward. Regrettably, our trading position is different, but if it was the same, we would love to follow his example."
Mackintosh explains the maths in greater detail: "The big difference between me and most of the others is that, because I've had a fantastically successful career and made a lot of money out of the theatre - thanks to some good shows! - I've been able to buy all these theatre freeholds with my own cash. So I don't have any borrowings."
In other words, Mackintosh is in the enviable position of not being in hawk to the bankers or outside investors. But, while owning bricks and mortar gives him a more permanent stake in the West End than being solely a producer whose shows must, inevitably, close at some point, he admits that those same venues are "a millstone if you can't fill them. You need a big hit, and that can really only be a musical now except for the odd exceptional production like the Dames (Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, selling out in The Breath of Life at the Haymarket) that gives you what I call a 'musical return'. Most plays don't and it's hard to make the kind of real money that you can with a musical success."
Lloyd Webber struck lucky with the first theatre he bought, the Palace, when Mackintosh, with his producer's hat on, gave him one of those very things. "He's earned tens of millions as landlord for Les Miserables; so hopefully, when we eventually finish, he will be able to put that theatre right." The exterior of the Palace, gorgeously completed some years ago, now needs to be matched inside and to achieve that, says Mackintosh, "it needs a lot of work done to it."
In the meantime, Mackintosh, for his part, is putting his own money where his mouth is, and others need to follow this example. "We have a unique treasury of Edwardian and Victorian theatres," he says, "and we are committed to improving our audience's experience when they visit them. We hope our efforts will make a significant contribution to bringing back the glory of the West End and help to make London, once again, the most vibrant and attractive city in the world."