Encore Theatre Magazine
:: Thursday, January 27, 2005 ::
West End in Crisis
Not just the Palace Theatre but the whole of the West End is at a crossroads. Last week, reports came out that P. Diddy (formerly known as Puff Daddy, and sometimes Sean "Puffy" Combs) was interested in buying some of the Really Useful Group's West End theatre holdings; the Garrick, the Lyric, the Duchess and the Apollo were all mentioned. This came hard on the heels of the Department of Culture's official response to the Theatres Trust report, published in October 2003, that £250 million was needed to maintain and modernise London's commercial theatre stock. The Department has rather vaguely - through an anomymous spokesperson and not by an official press release - promised to help the sector raise half the money through the public purse. (There's no indication of how they will help and it looks like, to use the old distinction, an aspiration rather than a pledge.) Now a Culture select committee is hearing evidence from a range of bodies, including the Theatres Trust, the Writers' Guild, the Little Theatre Guild, and the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (no, we hadn't heard of them either).
It's good that Lloyd Webber's empire is being broken up, even voluntarily. He was never a good landlord; he spent enormous sums on the Adelphi (pictured) to house Sunset Boulevard but lost interest in the theatre as quickly as audiences lost interest in that show. Most of his other properties have been noticeably neglected; it's always been obvious that Lloyd Webber bought theatres partly on whim and partly as a way of further vertically integrating his industrial processes. He could write, stage, publicise and take in all the ancillary income derived from owning the bricks and mortar. This was of a piece with his invention, with Cameron Mackintosh, of the through-branded musical.
However, it's not yet clear that P. Diddy will be much better. It's true that his performance in A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway last April was much admired and he may genuinely have developed a keen love of the stage. It seems more likely that he's thinking of it as an attempt to broaden mature his portfolio. He has previously been speculating in property, reputedly putting down a deposit on an US$8 million mansion in Lower Manhattan. But Manhattan property is not the cert. it was before 9-11 and he's looking for perhaps more secure returns.
The theatre's a funny industry to go into to make your fortune, though, as the theatre owners have always complained. The theatre rarely makes huge sums and usually makes them very slowly with comparatively onerous initial outlays. This is perhaps why rumours are flying that Combs has plans to transform one of the theatres into a nightclub. You'd have thought he'd had enough of nightclubs after the mysterious events of December 1999, but perhaps he recognises that a club is more likely to make money than a theatre. Cameron Mackintosh has recently announced dreary plans for late-night cabaret at the Prince of Wales and perhaps Combs is following in his footsteps, offering something more Barbara Cook than Bada Bing.
The theatres also face pressure from the new Disabilities Discrimination Act (see Encore's comment) which technically makes many West End theatres discriminatory. It remains to be seen how long the landlords can use these buildings' listed status to fend off legal action. It all adds up to a bleak financial picture for the West End's commercial future.
As part of their submission to the select committee report, the National Campaign for the Arts has been arguing that the government commit public money directly to support the commercial theatre sector. Oblivious to the fact that if the commercial sector needs subsidy then it can hardly be called the commercial sector, the argument is framed entirely in terms of the macroeconomic picture: 'As a result of the close links between the different parts, and the well-documented financial problems facing a number of theatres, particularly in the West End, there seems a persuasive argument in favour of making financial allowances for the West End theatres, for example in terms of rates. Not only are they a vital component of the UK theatre sector but they contribute approximately £1.1 billion to the British economy annually', the submission reads. Depressingly, it looks as if Tessa Jowell has implicitly endorsed this analysis, which suggests that her rather more exciting defence of artistic experience as a value in itself (see Encore's comment) has been ignored and abandoned.
What nobody seems to be asking is what the artistic value of these theatres is. Many of them are very beautiful buildings, particularly from the outside. The Vaudeville on the Strand (above), for example, is an elegantly compact space, drawing you into its deep foyer. The Palace, conversely, is a monumentally impressive theatre, whose gently concave facade embraces the traffic junction that it overlooks. Some theatres are ugly and dull: the Palladium is a horror, the Queen's may one day bounce back into architectural fashion but it seems unlikely; the Dominion has all the cosy merit of a warehouse and the Apollo Victoria, is an arrestingly unattractive building. Many of the auditoria are simply unworkable, emotionless barns embodying an entirely different age of theatregoing and unsuitable for current needs.
Many London theatres are listed well beyond their actual architectural value. The current state of affairs is as follows:
Grade I (of exceptional interest)
Drury Lane; Haymarket.
Grade II* (particularly important buildings of more than special interest)
Apollo Victoria, Savoy, Palladium, Lyceum, Coliseum, Wyndham's, Her Majesty's, Palace, Garrick, Lyric, Criterion, Old Vic.
Grade II (of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve them)
Adelphi, Whitehall, Phoenix, Cambridge, Barbican, Prince of Wales, Dominion, Vaudeville, Fortune, St Martin's, New Ambassadors, Shaftesbury, Victoria Palace, Queen's, Gielgud, Aldwych, Strand, Albery, Apollo, Duke of York's, Playhouse, Comedy.
Fair enough: Drury Lane is a building of overwhelming historical significance. How on earth has the Savoy got on these lists? It's also hard to see what rates the Lyric above the Adelphi or the Garrick above St Martins. The effect of listing means that making any substantial alteration to any of these buildings is illegal without obtaining a 'listed building consent', which is obviously extremely difficult and time-consuming to get, especially at the highest two grades. (At those grades, one can apply for English Heritage grants to complete urgent repairs but this would not include modernisation or the conversion of the buildings to ensure compliance with the DDA.)
Supporters of the theatre have tended to support the listing process, considering it the best way of preserving the theatre against property speculators. It's not clear that this heavy-handed method is the best - councils can ban change of use, which would clearly open up the process of adapting the buildings while preserving the sites for the theatre. As we all know, what we need are not these hulking great 500-1000 seaters, but a proliferation of more mid-size 300-seat auditoria. When they have been carved out of existing West End theatres - the Whitehall Studios, for example, and the forthcoming Sondheim theatre - the results are impressive. Being sentimental about our theatrical heritage is a way of turning our theatre into a museum; we should be unafraid of dramatically reshaping our West End theatre stock.
Of course, this doesn't help the theatre owners who once again will open their empty wallets and plead poverty. So, once again, we'd like to offer our own submission to the select committee. There's an obvious way out of this mess.
Unburden the theatre owners! Let's nationalise the West End!