West End: Riches to Rags…

The deteriorating condition of West End theatre buildings is never far from the minds of regular London theatregoers.  Lack of foyer and bar space, insufficient toilets, uncomfortable seating, poor leg-room and bad sightlines are just a few of the usual complaints.  These tired and timeworn venues are no longer adequate for modern audiences and await their modernistic revivals.  So the answer is, simply, that theatre owners need to stick their hands in their pockets, right?  Well, not quite.  Research by the Theatres Trust in 2003 showed that some £250 million of investment is required to modernise the many crumbling venues.  Delfont Mackintosh Theatres own seven of the forty commercial West End theatres, with Sir Cameron currently making a private investment of around £35 million in refurbishment.  However, the fact is that all forty theatres were built before 1937 and they are slowly becoming unworkable.  Last year, Andrew Lloyd Webber approached the House of Lords with a speech articulating the problem.  His speech outlined the salient facts such as that to install air-conditioning at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane would cost in the region of £15 million due to its Grade 1 Listed Building status.  Another example, the Palace theatre – soon to be home to Priscilla Queen of the Desert – requires an expensive renovation to its terracotta facade, only twenty years after the work was last carried out.

Lloyd Webber hinted heavily in his speech that the investment of public funds was appropriate to secure this national architecture.  Baroness Gloria Hooper, supported by Lloyd Webber, suggested that deteriorating West End venues should be given tax breaks, similar to those given to historic churches, to prevent them falling into disrepair and becoming financially unviable.  Another option proposed by the House of Lords is to use VAT receipts from theatre ticket sales to create a refurbishment fund.  An investigation by the London Assembly titled ‘Restoration Drama’ suggested nine alternative investment options for theatre owners.

It is important that a realisation is made: that West End theatres are both a public asset, as well as the responsibility of their owners.  I feel that it is time for the London Mayor to knock heads together to get theatre-owners and public bodies to share the cost of bringing the West End into the modern era.

theatreJunki © 2009

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