Commercial theatre owners must adopt more “innovative measures” – such as ticket levies, corporate sponsorship, fundraising appeals and debenture seats – to secure the investment necessary to refurbish many of the West End’s listed but now crumbling venues, according to new government findings.

Restoration Drama - Investment in West End Theatre Buildings, a report released yesterday (24 January 2008) by the London Assembly, concludes “that there is no single solution to tackling long-term under-investment that has left many theatres in London’s West End in desperate need of refurbishment”. Instead, a range of “innovative measures” must be put in place to restore theatres to their original glory, and modernise them for 21st-century audiences.

The investigation looked at the 40 commercial theatres in the West End, all of which were built before 1937 and which, combined, contribute £1.5 billion to London’s economy every year, according to 2004 Arts Council findings. It was led by Bob Blackman AM on behalf of the London Assembly’s Economic Development, Culture, Sport and Tourism Committee. It has previously been estimated that a £250 million investment is needed for the improvements to be made.

Potential solutions that theatres owners could explore range from the introduction of a ticket levy, to corporate sponsorship, fundraising campaigns and debentures. Other options include applications for public money from Arts Council England, although theatres would have to meet a set of criteria and demonstrate public accountability which could see some theatres run by a charitable trust, rather than an entirely commercial organisation. The report suggests that this option may prove difficult due to money being diverted from the arts to the 2012 Olympics over the coming years.

Blackman said: “This investigation has shown that, in effect, the issue of securing funding for improvements to West End theatres has reached an impasse and for most theatre owners the last five years of debate have thrown up no answers. This report offers a range of viable options. But there does need to be a willingness among theatre owners to take a more creative approach and look at options – or a combination of options – that they may not previously have considered. Theatres are not just commercial enterprises but also vital parts of London’s economy, culture and heritage, which makes it undeniable that public bodies have some role to play in securing their future. It would be a tragedy to see these iconic buildings slip further into disrepair, especially with theatre audience numbers now at record levels.”

Of particular concern to the London Assembly are the West End’s playhouses which are slowly being taken over as smaller homes for musicals, such as Buddy at the Duchess. As the Society of London Theatre has noted, box office income accrues largely to theatre producers and not the actual theatre owners, meaning that some owners, such as those of playhouses, may not be able to afford the recommended changes to the buildings.

Cameron Mackintosh’s company Delfont Mackintosh, which owns the Gielgud and Noel Coward theatres among others, was praised for its investment and refurbishments of its theatres. But in other venues there have been no developments since the 2003 Act Now! Report by the Theatres Trust. Among those who have made no improvements are the Playhouse and Comedy (ATG), Apollo (Nimax), St Martin’s and Ambassadors (Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen), and the Donmar Warehouse (ATG).

The report says owners must demonstrate how they would fulfil criteria for public funding by developing business plans for each building, prioritising theatres which need the most work and setting up charitable trusts so that public funding could be received. Owners should also explore other possible solutions such as controversial ticket levies, or additional investment from producers using the venues. The London Assembly would also like to see central Government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) re-establish its working group set up to secure investment in West End theatre buildings, involving the Mayor’s office and other local bodies as well as the Arts Council, Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage.

- by Tom Atkins