The first lady of Shaftesbury Avenue

Theatre: A quarter of the West End's theatres are owned by a glamorous Australian widow. Robert Gore-Langton asks her why 'Theatreland' is becoming a bit of a dump
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The Independent Culture
THINK ABOUT beef the next time you go to see a West End musical. It is very likely that the theatre you are in belongs to a middle-aged woman who also owns 18 million acres of cattle-grazing country scattered around Australia. The woman is Janet Holmes a Court and she knows as much about beef (stocking rates, domestic feedlots, slaughtering, etc) as she does about London theatreland (gross takes, Equity rules, bar takings, and the like). Aside from her vast tracts in the Australian outback, she is the single largest owner of London's West End theatres; in all, she owns and runs 11 of them - more than a quarter of the 42 commercial playhouses left in central London. In charge of the Stoll Moss theatre chain, Janet Holmes a Court is the most powerful woman in the West End.

She inherited the theatres in 1990 from her late husband, Robert Holmes a Court, one of the many Western Australian tycoons who emerged in the boom years in Perth in the 1980s. He made a vast fortune from cattle, property speculation and the stock market and in 1988 his conglomerate, Heytesbury Holdings, bought Stoll Moss, which had briefly been part of the business empire built up by rival Australian multi-millionaire, Alan Bond.

Everyone presumed on Robert Holmes a Court's death that his widow would sell up and retreat from the hurly-burly of business life. Not a bit of it. Although, privately, she had supported her husband closely in the running of his affairs, she had never taken on a public role in the empire. But after her husband's heart attack she threw herself into Stoll Moss with rare relish and she hung onto the prestige theatres, which include the capital's two giant battle-cruisers, the London Palladium and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, as well as most of the theatres down Shaftesbury Avenue: the Lyric, Gielgud, Queen's and Apollo. On a busy night her properties sell 12,000 tickets, adding up to some three million customers a year. Three million people, as she points out, sounding a bit like Dame Edna, and a bit like Mrs Thatcher, "is six million feet - just imagine what your carpets would look like?"

Janet Holmes a Court is now in a unique position. She is not only the wealthiest and largest theatre landlady - her nearest rival is the Mayfair Entertainments Group which owns eight theatres - but the hands-on chief executive of Stoll Moss.

I half-wanted this 51-year-old multi-millionairess, the proud owner of one per cent of the Australian land mass, to be a glorified Jillaroo figure and to greet me on horseback. But she wasn't, and she didn't. Janet Holmes a Court is glamorous, immaculately groomed and agreeably informal. She laughs a lot and is fond of business jargon (the meat trade is "pro-active" Down Under, she boasts). She's also tough. She made it clear when I entered her office in Soho Square that she's fed up with talking about her late husband and that discussion on the subject should be brief. For the record, she adored him.

Janet Holmes a Court was brought up in a tamed part of the bush near Perth and met her husband at the University of Western Australia where he took law and she read chemistry. During their marriage, she took a back seat and raised their four children (now in their twenties). The global stock market crash of 1987 precipitated a family crisis and Robert, in a frantic attempt to recover his fortunes, became deeply stressed. He dropped dead suddenly aged 53. About his heart attack Janet Holmes a Court is completely matter of fact.

"It was a shock, but it wasn't a surpise to me that he died. He smoked too much [seven cigars before breakfast apparently], ate too much and worked too much." Did she warn him? "Oh, everybody did. But I am a great believer that people have a right to do with their bodies what they will. If he wanted to abuse his body, live a full existence and then go out like a light, that was his right. You have to go along with it.''

Instead of breaking up the empire and lying by her pool, Janet took on all of Robert's responsibilities. These sound fun. They included a Perth- based trucking operation, a racehorse stud, and a winery and restaurant down on the St Margaret's River, on the bottom tip of Western Australia, where she now spends as much time as she can. The construction company she inherited recently built one of the world's longest bridges, over the Mekong river in Cambodia, which she visited looking a million dollars in a hard hat and safety boots.

In Britain, she explains vaguely, she was bequeathed "things'' as well as businesses. Things like? "Oh, like a house in Regent's Park with four acres of garden and some Impres- sionist paintings," she says, barely batting an eyelid. "They were all purchased with debt by my husband and quite unsustainable.'' When Robert died, she sold Grove House in Regent's Park, which they seldom used in any case. Now she has a modest flat in Soho for London visits.

Her great achievement is to have held Heytesbury together by rationalising the businesses. Unlike her husband, she doesn't play the stock markets. "I know because I'm on the board of the Reserve Bank [of Australia] whether the market is up or down, but it really doesn't interest me one bit. I haven't looked at a share price in years."

She says she much prefers the London theatre business. There was hostility to the outsider when she first inherited Stoll Moss and, almost at once, she was tested with public demands that the Queen's Theatre should be renamed the Gielgud Theatre in honour of the great English actor. She resisted and courted unpopularity. Then, she won over a suspicious profession and upstaged the Olivier Awards ceremony last year by announcing unexpectedly that she would rename the Globe Theatre, built in 1906 in Shaftesbury Avenue, after Sir John.

As landlady of so many of London's playhouses - her theatres currently house seven musicals and three straight plays, while one is currently dark - she is perhaps the person most answerable to the public for the more mundane aspects of theatre-going. When audiences get cross about uncomfortable seats, baking temperatures in the summer or dirty lavatories, it is to Janet Holmes a Court, the First Lady of Shaftesbury Avenue, that they look. Her job is perhaps not as easy as it might appear. "A lot of the people who used to run Stoll Moss,'' she says, "thought they were impresarios and forgot they were landlords. That's why, since 1990, we've had a pounds 16 million spending programme. I hope you've noticed. Her Majesty's is now completely refurbished. The facades on Shaftesbury Avenue have all been done, except the hideous Queen's. And we are still working our way through all the interiors."

It is true the theatres look more beautiful than ever, but it would also be true to say that all the hassles of going to a West End theatre - parking problems, expensive and sometimes useless programmes, overcrowded bars where interval drinks are served in slow motion, queues for lavatories, uncomfortable seats with little leg-room, and so forth - can result in a bad night out, a duff show, a clamped car and a nasty virus. What Janet Holmes a Court inherited was a badly run down chunk of property and it is no wonder it sometimes seems that the literate middle class has abandoned the Lon-don theatre, nowadays full of dubious musical compilation shows, to foreign tourists.

Mrs Holmes a Court takes these criticisms on the chin. She replies in kind, saying that on a recent visit to the theatre (not one of hers) she nearly froze to death and her guests' knees were doubled up in pain. "The smell of urine," she declares, "outside the theatres is a factor, too. Theatre has got to be a good night out in every sense. If London had the only theatres in the world, then people would stand knee-deep in manure. But you can see the same musicals all over Europe now. Londoners shouldn't have to suffer for their art."

But they often do. So, I asked politely, what can be done about it? "Well, the seats in the majority of theatres in London were built when people were not six feet tall or 16 stone. We are currently finding out how many seats we could lose at the Palladium, for example. We have converted the Tudor bar there into more ladies' loos. When I first came to Stoll Moss there were 25 male loos to every one female! If you come across a smelly loo - and I think you won't now - then you will please ring me!" Her passion as a landlady seems to be genuine. She says she spends every night when she is in London in the theatres, always inspecting the lavatories and other facilities for herself.

"Believe me, we are very customer-driven," she says, launching into a glorious non-sequitur. "In the cattle business, for instance, we kill cattle in Australia for export to Malaysia. We found the Malays wanted Halal meat so we found Muslims in Australia to slaughter it." I didn't dare suggest that she slaughtered a few of her bar staff. And what about rip-off theatre programmes at pounds l.50? "We haven't got around to programmes yet, but we will. Please write your suggestions down."

There are no easy solutions for many of the problems: theatres are old and listed building regulations make change well-nigh impossible. Frankly, Stoll Moss's work on its interiors has done little so far to change public perceptions of the West End being a bit of a dump. pounds 16 million is small beer compared to the sum really needed for fully modernising the theatres.

Though Mrs Holmes a Court is chiefly a landlady, Stoll Moss does a modest amount of producing shows for its theatres. Nica Burns, a woman with fringe theatre experience, has been appointed executive producer of the company. The few productions so far have been unusual West End fare. For example, Theatre de Complicite's Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, was put on at the Shaftesbury and there was Footfalls, with Fiona Shaw, a 20-minute play for pounds 4, at the Garrick. Where necessary Stoll Moss has "got radical" with its buildings in an effort to find a new audience. The whole of the Royalty Theatre was recently turned into a tropical lagoon for the Caribbean musical, Once on this Island. It lost money.

Janet Holmes a Court has an infectious Australian optimism. She doesn't go much on British gloom. Typical of her thinking has been to get Nica Burns to run a surgery each Wed-nesday for young producers, writers and directors who need advice, expertise and the right phone numbers. It is London's first theatrical marriage-broking service. "What Janet is trying to do is identify the go-getters and help them go get," says Burns. "I tell you, she's enormously inspiring to work for." !

THE HOLMES COURT THEATRES

APOLLO: 775 seats. Opened in 1901, Louis XIV-style interior; the showpiece of Stoll Moss's four Victorian/Edwardian theatres at the Piccadilly end of Shaftesbury Avenue. John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson did their famous double act here in David Storey's Home.

CAMBRIDGE: 1287 seats. Its association with big musicals is about to continue with Fame. Large, art deco-ish theatre designed in 1930. Terrific bar. Once home to The Magistrate with the great Alastair Sim.

DUCHESS: 487 seats. The company's smallest theatre, this 1929 gem had the West End premieres of Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and Pinter's The Caretaker.

GARRICK: 656 seats. Built 1889 for W S Gilbert; famous for comedies, including the not-so-hilarious 14-year run of No Sex Please - We're British. Haunted by Mr Bouchier, Garrick's manager.

GIELGUD: 897 seats. Formerly The Globe. Sir John has had long association, famously in 1939 as Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest.

HER MAJESTY'S: 1260 seats. Magnificently restored, modelled on the Opera at Versailles. Beerbohm Tree's 1900 "Dream" featured real rabbits. Noted for long musical runs like West Side Story and Phantom of the Opera.

LONDON PALLADIUM: 2317 seats. Vast Frank Matcham theatre (1910); facade modelled on a classical temple. Traditionally the home of variety and pantomime. Recently refurbished and now showing Oliver!

LYRIC THEATRE: 961 seats. This 1888 building has been compared to a comfortable Dutch townhouse. Theatrically undistinguished, a long run for little-remembered The Little Hut (1261 performances) was the height of its fame.

QUEEN'S: 979 seats. Ugliest theatre in London. The fine 1908 W G R Sprague exterior is concealed by a revolting 1950s facade. Should be bulldozed.

ROYALTY: 1000 seats. Built 1960 on site of old Stoll Theatre; opened by Dame Edith Evans. Two most popular shows, Oh! Calcutta and A Clockwork Orange. Currently dark with uncertain future.

THEATRE ROYAL, DRURY LANE: 2283 seats. The fourth theatre on this site and the oldest London playhouse still in use. Fastest bar service in town. 1920s auditorium. It is used for lavish musicals; notably long runs include My Fair Lady and now Miss Saigon.

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