New Shaw theatre builds reputation for sure-fire misses

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The Independent Culture

It is London's latest theatrical sensation. The venue that can pretty much guarantee a flop every time. In just three short months, The Shaw, the capital's newest theatre, has attracted some of the worst critical reviews imaginable.

Its first play, the little known Murder at Deem House, was described as "terrible" by those few who saw it; the second, a couple of one-acters by Chekhov, was branded an "endurance test" while the third, Gogol's Marriage, earned the worst of soubriquets. The reviewer for The Stage, the acting profession's trade newspaper, wrote: "This must surely rank as one of the worst productions – professional and amateur – I have ever seen in more than a decade of reviewing."

While some may point the finger at its artistic director, a former professional juggler who directed circus shows, others see a darker motive. Theatre campaigners are convinced the owners want the theatre to fail because they can make more money by hiring out the venue for highly profitable conferences for businessmen. This is all a far cry from the original Shaw theatre, a 1970s neo-brutalist building, that in its heyday was a respected venue in central London. Home to the National Youth Theatre, its stage was graced by such luminaries as Dame Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren and Mia Farrow.

The controversy over the present theatre dates back to a planning agreement signed in 1995 between the Park Plaza Hotels chain, which owns the new Shaw, and Camden Council. The group wanted to build a state-of-the-art luxury hotel on the Euston Road in central London. But to do so meant demolishing the existing theatre, named after George Bernard Shaw, that stood in its way. In exchange for planning permission the hotel chain agreed to build a gleaming new venue.

Yet theatre watchers claim the developers have breached one planning condition after another. Eyebrows were raised when the £135-a-night Shaw Park Plaza, supposed to open only when the theatre was complete, duly opened two years ago, while the theatre's re-emergence was delayed until this May.

Then planning officials discovered some of the backstage rooms were being "unlawfully" used by the hotel as "offices, storage and maintenance workshops" in connection with conference facilities.

Camden Council served an enforcement notice ordering the hotel to return the rooms to the theatre. The hotel has appealed the enforcement notice and applied – even before the theatre finally opened – for a change of use of the theatre to a "mixed use theatre and a conference centre".

The new planning application, which will be debated by the council this week, is recommended for refusal by the council's planning department.

Peter Longman, director of the Theatres Trust, a statutory watchdog set up by Parliament to protect theatres from closure, said of the Shaw: "We are very concerned about what is going on there. We are keeping an eye on it.

"There are people there who would rather not have the theatre and wish the theatre was not a success and would hope to use it predominantly for conferences."

John Levitt, chairman of Save London's Theatres Campaign, said the artistic directors were "full of ideas" but had been forced to "accommodate impractical and impossible demands of the owners".

"If the hotel owners persist, it would cause the inevitable demise of this excellent new theatre, re-opened after years in the doldrums," he claimed.

It is an accusation vehemently dismissed by the hotel chain. "Our intention is its first use should be as a theatre and it always has been," said Roger Powell, the hotel's general manager. The change in planning use would enable the theatre to be run as a conference centre by day and theatre by night – just like other venues around London, he said. "The theatre is good for us. To have a theatre in the hotel is a benefit. You have something to draw people into the hotel."

And the Shaw's co-artistic director, Mike Redwood, a former juggler and director of circus shows, maintains the theatre is merely finding its feet. "They [the owners] are interested in making the theatre a success," insisted Mr Redwood, adding: "Some reviews have really liked the shows. This is a storm in a teacup."

He is confident the autumn and winter season will be a huge success with names as big as Mel Brooks being mooted to appear. Mr Brooks, it will be remembered, made the great comedy The Producers, a movie, and now successful stage show, in which the central characters deliberately set out to stage a musical flop – Springtime for Hitler – in order to make a fortune.