Update: West End’s Arts Theatre Faces DemolitionDate: 24 May 2005
The West End’s Arts Theatre (pictured), the first London home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, may close as early as August if the current dispute between the theatre’s management and the landlord is not resolved.
The India-based Gamma Investments, which owns the building - located in a prime position on Great Newport Street, between Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane - would like to demolish it as part of plans to redevelop the surrounding block as higher value commercial property for hotel and office use.
The director of the Arts, Edward Snape, has been fighting these plans in favour of refurbishments which are now urgently needed. Unless an agreement is reached to safeguard the existing 1927 theatre and make it a viable commercial and artistic enterprise, Snape will halt programming at the conclusion of the current production, Immodesty Blaize and Walter's Burlesque!, which has been extended to 30 July.
Snape told Whatsonstage.com today that the 340-seat Arts has fallen into an advanced state of disrepair which - along with increased competition from similarly sized West End venues such as Trafalgar Studios (reconfigured from the Whitehall), the New Ambassadors and The Venue off Leicester Square – has now rendered it unprofitable and, effectively, unmanageable. Gamma, which has also allowed the four floors above the theatre to remain empty for two years despite proposals for club and restaurant extensions to the theatre, has taken no action, according to Snape.
Peter Longman, director of the Theatres Trust, told Whatsonstage.com that, as the Arts isn’t a listed building, the landlord could legally “knock it down tonight”. However, Gamma is “in cloud cuckoo-land” if it thinks it could replace the Arts with a hotel or other commercial property. “It isn’t listed, but it is protected under Westminster City Council planning laws which are designed to preserve it for theatre use.”
Snape fears that Gamma could bypass those planning laws by including a small, underground, conference suite-style facility as part of the mooted hotel complex that may be built after the Arts’ possible demolition. More immediately, thanks to their long-term plans, the landlord has refused to invest in the existing facility. “The Arts now needs urgent work doing,” said Snape. “The landlords don’t want to spend the money on it, and I don’t want to continue with a building that is not up to scratch.”
Built in 1927, the Arts started as a theatre club to avoid the Lord Chamberlain’s stage censorship. In the 1940s and 50s, a young Peter Hall directed the UK premieres of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Eugene O'Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra and Jean Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors. Other notable UK or world premieres have included Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer. From 1966 to 1988, following a short-lived inaugural capital venture for the RSC, the Unicorn Children’s Theatre set up residence at the Arts.
More recently, after a period of darkness and a £250,000 renovation of the front-of-house bar and café (funded by the theatre management) in 2000, the Arts became a member of the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and has hosted productions including Another Country, Gagarin Way, Closer to Heaven, The Vagina Monologues, Happy Days, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, Hurricane, Caroline O'Connor’s Whatsonstage.com Award-winning Bombshells, the RSC’s Tynan with Corin Redgrave, Fully Committed and Toby Young’s How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.
Though its now in need of repair, Longman has praised the Arts as a unique and valuable performance space with “one of the best map references of any theatre in London”. He believes “the landlords appear to have behaved totally unreasonably” and advises fans of the theatre to write letters to Gamma and to Westminster City Council in support.
- by Terri Paddock
In response to information leaked on the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum,