Arts: Oh, what a lovely carve up!

This week, Sir Cameron Mackintosh snaffled two West End theatres from under the nose of his biggest rival. Could this mean war? And how will the map of theatreland be redrawn as a consequence? By David Lister
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The Independent Culture
You may consider Sir John Gielgud to be the most important theatrical figure alive in Britain. But last week the West End theatre bearing his name was bought and sold without his knowledge.

Two days ago Stoll Moss, the company that until that moment owned the Gielgud, and is still the biggest player in West End theatre, held a board meeting. Its chair, the Australian multimillionairess Janet Holmes a Court, was at home in Perth, Western Australia, but she took part in the meeting by video-conferencing, probably issuing one of her hearty chuckles as they discussed how one of her closest friends, Cameron Mackintosh, had outbid her to take both the Gielgud Theatre and its Shaftesbury Avenue neighbour, the Queens, from under her nose.

But the chuckle would have been tinged with annoyance. Stoll Moss didn't know until very late in the day that Mackintosh was bidding against them. And the loss of the Gielgud would have hurt the estimable Mrs Holmes a Court. In renaming the former Globe Theatre after Britain's greatest living actor, she had made the first of several gestures that convinced an initially sceptical British theatre establishment that she was not some philistine interloper.

By insisting that new work, such as Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking and Ben Elton's Popcorn, be programmed at some of her Shaftesbury Avenue theatres, she had further surprised and delighted the cynics. In addition, she broke with a longstanding tradition: that of theatre owners' ingrained lack of concern for audience comfort. She put money into an extensive renovation programme and built more ladies' lavatories in her theatres.

Now two of the prime ones will be lost to her when her lease runs out in 2006. She has, admittedly, had other things on her mind. Mrs Holmes a Court - widow of the Australian property magnate Robert Holmes a Court and, like her late husband, a land- and cattle owner in Australia - is now being touted as Australia's first republican president. Opinion polls have made her the people's choice if referendums show that the country wants to become a republic.

Such is the calibre of the people who for some reason or other enjoy running London's theatres - traditionally a sure-fire way of losing money. One of Mrs Holmes a Court's closest associates confirmed yesterday that even if she becomes president of Australia there is no way that she will give up her theatre interests in Britain.

Australia's first republican president may forgo riding in state along the Mall; she certainly isn't going to miss a first night at the London Palladium. But that's not her most pressing concern. Whether or not the Queen loses Australia, Australia's potential new president has lost the Queens.

Sir Cameron put in a pounds 15m bid for the leasehold of it and the Gielgud. Stoll Moss were not prepared to match it. It didn't make business sense. True, little that goes on in theatre does. And if there is one man in the West End who defines philanthropy it is Cameron Mackintosh, who, for instance, has recently given Lionel Bart a share of royalties in the latest production of Oliver!, donated money to the National Theatre to put on musicals, and set up a chair of contemporary theatre at Oxford University. But, even by the sentimental business rules of Shaftesbury Avenue, it was hard to understand what Mackintosh was up to.

Richard Johnston, the chief executive of Stoll Moss, said yesterday: "Clearly we would like to have acquired the theatres at a price we think sensible. We're quite relaxed about it because in our view it's impossible to get a return for what Cameron has paid for these businesses. But he may have a different agenda."

Exactly. What is clear is that he can no longer be considered as just a producer and champion of musicals. He already part-owns theatres, including The Strand, the Prince Edward and the Prince of Wales. But all are showing musicals. From Buddy to Mamma Mia, they all proclaim Mackintosh's first love.

In acquiring the Gielgud and Queens he now owns theatres unsuited to staging full-blown musicals. What's more, he has bought the whole block of adjoining property. Theatregoers will be able to have a drink in a Cameron Mackintosh pub, go next door to watch a Cameron Mackintosh production and discuss it over a meal at a Cameron Mackintosh restaurant.

Musically, Mackintosh is a traditionalist who has championed revivals of Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady and Carousel, and was originally turned on to the genre by the most kitsch musical of them all. As his fellow producer Bill Kenwright points out: "I became infatuated with theatre after seeing West Side Story as a boy. Cameron had exactly the same feeling, after seeing Salad Days."

Mackintosh's business associate for the last 20 years has been Martin McCallum, now managing director of Cameron Mackintosh's theatrical empire. "It makes sense for the company to invest in what it understands, which is theatres," McCallum says. "We will be involved in programming, and Cameron will have a hand in it."

Another West End theatre magnate, who does not wish to be named, is more blunt. "It is some years since Cameron had his last musical blockbuster with Miss Saigon. The bad reviews and early closure of Martin Guerre in London have hurt him enormously. He craves another big success. His producing interests are slowing down. But he has a substantial fortune [pounds 350m]. What does he do with it? He has one overwhelming interest - the theatre."

And so Mackintosh the producer is turning into Mackintosh the owner and programmer. While his musical tastes may have been traditional, the straight plays he wants in his theatres could be anything but.

Martin McCallum again: "Cameron knows that the important thing about programming theatres is to be in touch with what the public want. New work and new writing will play a big part."

The vision of Mackintosh-programmed theatres has led to anxiety. Martin Brown of Equity says it would be perilous if the West End did not mix new writing and straight productions from the provinces with musicals and comedies. But Mackintosh's record of bringing shows in from the provinces is good. He brought in Five Guys Named Moe after scouting at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. On the fringe, there is even some excitement at a musicals king working his magic on drama. Paul Blackman, artistic director of The Roundhouse, says: "If he turns his attention to straight theatre with the same success as he has had with musicals then we should all stand by our beds. It will give him a new impetus entirely."

Meanwhile, watching the Cameron-and-Janet show from the wings is another theatre landlord with a different day job, Andrew Lloyd Webber. The composer owns three theatres - the Adelphi, the New London and the Palace. Now here the story begins to get incestuously complicated. Two of Lord Lloyd- Webber's theatres are home to shows produced by Cameron Mackintosh - Cats, composed by Lloyd Webber, and Les Miserables. One of Mackintosh's biggest hits, Miss Saigon, is on at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, part of the Holmes a Court empire.

She also owns Her Majesty's which is showing, seemingly in perpetuity, The Phantom of the Opera, produced by Mackintosh, composed by Lloyd Webber.

The plain fact is that Sir Cameron is a close friend of both Lord Lloyd- Webber and Mrs Holmes a Court. And many of the huge profits they make daily from the West End are shared ones.

Nevertheless, the successful pounds 15m bid for the Queens and the Gielgud is the first sign that while they remain good friends, Mackintosh and Holmes a Court are now in direct competition. And Lloyd Webber, though he says he wants to concentrate on composing and take a back seat from business, could find it impossible to resist joining in the power struggle for the West End.

Although the rivalry between Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber has been overplayed, they watch each other's successes, failures and acquisitions closely.

Janet Holmes a Court is not prepared to sit back. According to her chief executive, Richard Johnston: "Theatre remains her abiding interest. She will be over here regularly. Her son Peter and daughter Catherine are both in the business."

She is also aware of persistent rumours that Associated Capital Theatres may be about to put its venues on the market, including the Donmar Warehouse, where Nicole Kidman recently starred.

Mr Johnston remarks: "We have been pipped at the post by Cameron on this one. But we have a remit at Stoll Moss to grow the business. Other theatres will become available. We run 10 at the moment. By 2006 when Cameron has full operation of the Queens and the Gielgud, we anticipate that we will be operating more than 10."

Battle has commenced for the soul of the West End: Cameron Mackintosh, property magnate and cutting-edge programmer against Janet Holmes a Court, property magnate and cutting-edge programmer - much more fun, surely, than producing musicals. Or being president of Australia.

Dramatis Personae

Cameron Mackintosh

The 52-year-old universally popular producer began his career sweeping the stage during the sixties production of Lionel Bart's Oliver! By the Nineties the massively successful musicals impresario was able to re- stage Oliver! and give Bart a share of the royalties. He lives with his partner Michael, a photographer. No rivalry between Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber, just the odd coincidence such as a 50th birthday tribute evening to Lloyd Webber at the Royal Albert Hall, followed by a show called Hey Mr Producer at the Royal Albert Hall, a tribute to Cameron Mackintosh.

Andrew Lloyd Webber

The 51-year-old composer is the only one of the three players with party- political leanings. He was ennobled by John Major. His music has been used in a Conservative election campaign. Shy, and sensitive to criticism, he remains unchallenged as the most popular musicals composer of the age. His business ventures took a downturn recently as some of his shows abroad closed at theatres built specifically for them. But he is still the toast of the coach parties in Britain, and could always gamble some of the losses on the horses owned by his delightful and down-to-earth third wife, Madeleine.

Janet Holmes a Court

The 55-year-old widow of Robert Holmes a Court has a vivacious informality that is not always common among owners of massive business empires. Her theatres jostle for her attention with transport, property and beef companies. The favourite to become Australia's first republican president, she is also passionate about, and involved in, improving the quality of children's television, and she chairs the Australian Children's TV Foundation. Female theatregoers should salute her: one of her priorities has been increasing the number of ladies' lavatories in West End theatres.