MUSIC / Just a few questions of space: The pattern of London's halls and theatres is still a muddle. Simon Mundy charts a course towards rescue

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The Independent Culture
London has two of the largest arts centres in Europe, with a greater range of activity than anywhere else. The Proms prove each year that the Royal Albert Hall has an atmosphere and a drawing power that make most of the country's new municipal venues seem too mean-spirited for great music. In the West End nearly 50 theatres, including two opera houses, ply for trade nightly.

The plenty, though, is not matched by the condition. Around the South Bank Centre the drab concrete walkways crack and discolour. The seats in the Festival Hall badly need re-upholstering. The Purcell Room must be one of the most ungracious places to listen to chamber music ever conceived. At the Barbican millions of pounds are being spent upgrading the entrance to look like an arts centre rather than part of Dunkirk docks.

London now needs the same attention that Birmingham, Sheffield, Glasgow and Edinburgh have been paid in the last few years. With the prospect of some serious money becoming available from a national lottery and John Major's stated intention to have the country's heritage infrastructure smartened up for the new century, there has been a flurry of proposals in the last few months as the great and sometimes the good vaunt their pet projects. Ideas have veered from reshaping the whole of Covent Garden Piazza to the equally grandiose but less logical suggestion (attributed to Lord Palumbo) to merge the national opera companies and build a Bastille-like edifice on the gardens between the Festival and County Halls. But the lack of any city-wide authority makes putting together a coherent scheme for London's venues unnecessarily difficult.

Much of the trouble begins with the three theatres that border Bow Street and which dominated London cultural life a hundred years ago: the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the Lyceum and the Royal Opera House. The last is now more than uncomfortable to work in. Backstage it is becoming unsafe. At the same time the pricing policy adopted to maintain some semblance of financial propriety in its two resident companies has drawn such fire that the resentment is in danger of spilling over into a general dislike of all artistic institutions.

Even though the Royal Opera and Ballet give more performances for less subsidy than any equivalent companies in the world, their operations are still cramped as much by physical conditions as by financial constraints. The back of the building must be modernised soon, whether or not the fancier development thought up when office space was the answer to all problems goes ahead. Meanwhile the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, has for years been given over to long-run musicals such as A Chorus Line and Miss Saigon. It is one of the few theatres in the capital with a stage and auditorium big enough to make such spectacles memorable and financially viable.

The trouble is that the big musicals effectively take the Theatre Royal out of circulation. Yet even it does not have the wizardry possible in a dedicated, state-of- the-art building, and it would make the perfect second home for our major ballet companies, which at the moment have to slot in as best they can with opera or make do on stages, like the Dominion, which were never designed for dance. The answer would be to build a new home for long-run musicals - perhaps on the vacant lot between Shaftesbury Avenue and New Oxford Street - to free the Theatre Royal for ballet and light opera.

Contemporary dance companies currently move between Riverside Studios, The Place, Sadler's Wells (recently saved from closure by a temporary injection of cash from the London Arts Board) and now the Royalty Theatre. None of these is intrinsically the wrong place, but all need better facilities for artists and audience. Certainly none of them offers the sort of environment enjoyed by Netherlands Dance Theatre in its superb new building in the Hague.

I do not believe, like many, that the restored Lyceum would be the right place for them. Its wing space is too small, and unless the re-equipment of the interior is merciless to the original design, it could not generate the right atmosphere. The Lyceum is a wreck. Despite attempts to hold Brent Walker to its repairing lease and the fact that it is owned by the statutory Theatres Trust, one of the country's finest lyric theatres is boarded up and unusable. It should be restored and taken back to its roots, staging British plays written between 1850 and 1925 - Shaw, Boucicault, Galsworthy, Barrie and Pinero - which at the moment have to rely on either the unsuitable Lyttelton or on short seasons at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

On the South Bank there is no real need for any more performing arts spaces, certainly not for a vast new opera house that destroys public gardens without good reason. But the South Bank does need creative spaces: studios for visual artists, places for writers working at the centre and for composers who want access to electronic equipment. A building which recognised that there is more to rehearsal and preparation than just getting the staging right would make a long-term impact on the quality of the performances.

London needs a proper space for medium-size music theatre - the sort of work mounted by Opera Factory (which has used the QEH satisfactorily but not quite convincingly in recent seasons) and during the London Opera Festival. The Almeida in Islington and the Donmar Warehouse are good studio spaces, but do not have enough seats.

The South Bank concert halls have improved - though the reopening of the Wigmore Hall in a couple of months' time will be welcome. Away from the vicinity of Big Ben, however, things are less well ordered. Cabot Hall in Canary Wharf promised to be an important centre for East London before Olympia and York withdrew. In the north of London it is essential that the Roundhouse be returned to artistic use as soon as possible, and that the recent sale of the site by Camden Council does not mean that it is developed cynically.

In the west there is nothing adequate between the Albert Hall and Cardiff, a ridiculous situation that leaves major southern towns like Reading, Swindon and Bristol making do with second-rate venues. I was not being entirely facetious when I suggested recently building a concert hall at Heathrow - partly to make sure Mr Terry Dicks MP had some voting constituents in the arts, but also to offer a cultural heart to an area dominated by impersonal activities.

All in all, a lot of serious and imaginative thinking needs to be done, and quickly, if the city is not to become unappealing in comparison with Paris, Berlin and Prague or even Britain's other cities. When David Mellor returns from holiday he should remember his visit to Barcelona and galvanize London, even without an Olympic excuse.

Simon Mundy is Director of the National Campaign for the Arts