There's life after Lloyd Webber

The king of the musical may sell some of London's best-known theatres. But they need more than a change of ownership, argues the actress Nichola McAuliffe
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The Independent Culture

If the reports that Andrew Lloyd Webber is intending to sell off part of his clutch of theatres are true, I shall be very sad. When he suggested that some West End venues should be demolished, I admit that I took him to task in these pages, arguing that he could save the cost of knocking them down, as, under the stewardship of his Really Useful company, they were likely to fall down of their own accord because of their decaying fabric. In fact, in The Lyric and The Palladium, where I was incarcerated during Hobson's Choice, Semi-Monde and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, there were so many mice that it was surprising we weren't charged extra for living in a wildlife reserve. I later heard that his reaction to my comments was forgivably volatile, and included some suggestion of selling up and burying me under The Phantom of the Opera's chandelier.

If the reports that Andrew Lloyd Webber is intending to sell off part of his clutch of theatres are true, I shall be very sad. When he suggested that some West End venues should be demolished, I admit that I took him to task in these pages, arguing that he could save the cost of knocking them down, as, under the stewardship of his Really Useful company, they were likely to fall down of their own accord because of their decaying fabric. In fact, in The Lyric and The Palladium, where I was incarcerated during Hobson's Choice, Semi-Monde and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, there were so many mice that it was surprising we weren't charged extra for living in a wildlife reserve. I later heard that his reaction to my comments was forgivably volatile, and included some suggestion of selling up and burying me under The Phantom of the Opera's chandelier.

Well, I'm sorry if I upset him, but I'll be even sorrier if his theatres fall into the hands of people who don't necessarily understand that the thing about theatre is you've got to take risks.

At present it seems that one of the biggest risks is financial: that the repayments on the loan people take out to buy venues are so prohibitive that they can't afford the upkeep of the buildings. Perhaps the public-private partnership I suggested, and which is being championed, independently of my humble proposal, by the likes of Kevin Spacey and Helen Mirren, would be the best way to go.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is, whatever the music cognoscenti may think, one of the greatest arts figures of our times. He changed the face of musical theatre without aping the American model, and his works have played around the world. Because of him, young people now specialise in musical theatre when, a generation ago, they would have done musicals only if they were incapable of anything else. Because of Lloyd Webber, no eyebrows are raised when Jonathan Pryce and Ewan McGregor cross over and do "turns" in Oliver or Guys and Dolls, or when Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre direct Acorn Antiques and Mary Poppins.

But does being an artistic genius prepare you for the perils of being a property-owner in modern-day theatreland? Probably not any more than vice versa: I doubt very much that the dukes of Westminster have turned out a decent musical between them, despite having the real-estate nous of Alexander the Great.

But Lloyd Webber has had the cojones to give it a try, and, while maybe it's just the worry and the ungrateful tenants that are making him want to give up his empire, I wonder whether, despite his reputed £400m fortune, it's the spiralling cost of maintaining the fabric of these old buildings that is giving him sleepless nights. Let's face it, why should he bother? I suspect Andrew Lloyd Webber is, in the very best sense of the word, a romantic. He has, throughout his career, followed impossible dreams, and, unlike Don Quixote, he has triumphed in the real world. Sadly, though, it seems some windmills may finally defeat him.

Does it not behove the Government, despite Tony Blair's irritability with the arts, and the theatre in particular, to offer him a partnership? This is not some woolly, liberal luvvie talking: I speak as a Londoner who is sharply aware of what my city has to offer, not only culturally but in terms of tourism. People come to London not to see our policemen (who are, sadly, not as decorative in their luminous jackets and rigger's belts laden with kit as they once were), nor the Changing of the Guard (the Vatican has that - and in more amusing frocks), nor our museums (Paris and New York aren't shabby), nor our fast-disappearing Routemaster buses, but, mostly, for the unvarying excellence of our theatre.

No one can rival London for choice of straight theatre, great and small and, because of Lloyd Webber's influence, we can now rival Broadway in terms of musical theatre. It strikes me that the Treasury could do worse than get into bed with Lloyd Webber; then, with money worries aside, his company could concentrate on making theatres into venues of pleasure, leisure, entertainment and education from 10 in the morning till 10 at night.

We could also, perhaps, concentrate on joined-up administration in the West End. Could a new consortium persuade Keith Hill (the Minister for London) and Ken Livingstone (the Mayor) to cooperate in making theatre-going a more holistic experience? Restaurants could be adopted (ads in programmes in return for meal-deals; free bottle of house wine on production of tickets). Pubs could share the burden of interval drinks (profits negotiable). They could sound interval bells and allow the use of their bathrooms, allowing second acts to go up on time and women to enjoy them.

One car-park chain has a well-kept secret of cheaper parking for theatre-goers, but their operatives often make it so difficult and unpleasant to take advantage of it that people give up and go home in a foul temper, unwilling to go into the West End again. All West End car parks should be brought into the scheme and the people running them persuaded that theatre-goers are an excellent source of night-time revenue and a discouragement to the drunks, the drug addicts and the generally incontinent who haunt them after dark.

Bars and foyers should be open all day, not only providing for the public but also allowing performers to entertain in them. Lunchtime concerts and recitals would benefit the practitioners as well as the visitors. There should also be some rebate of the congestion charge for those wishing to come into the zone at 6pm - say £2.50 off the ticket price, reclaimable from Transport for London. A date sticker could be applied to the numberplate, easily identified by the cameras and available with advance-purchase tickets. That half-hour is the difference between a pleasant experience and a nightmare if you want to park and then eat before a 7.30pm curtain-up. "Shift the start to 8pm," I hear you say: fine - but that makes it half an hour later going home, and there's quite a psychological barrier between curtain-down at 10.20pm and almost 11 o'clock.

Perhaps, if the Government and the private sector got together, we might have shuttle buses to and from mainline stations, as Sadler's Wells does. Theatre-owners aren't Rachmans; they are, in general, people like Lloyd Webber, who revere London's heritage. They know that, like dogs, theatres are not just for Christmas and the panto season. With a little co-operation we can be as proud of them as we are of our athletes.

But any prospective owner should have a visit to check that their houses are well maintained and that their flashings are in order. And, just as the Government is considering limiting dog-ownership, so new theatre-owners should be allowed a maximum of, say, three premises. Should they allow them to fall into disrepair, an independent panel, Offshow, could confiscate them and bring in a theatre tsar to run them until a buyer could be found. Responsible owners could buy more theatres.

The public-private partnership could allow owners to reduce rents to incoming shows so that they could weather seasonal dips, terrorist threats and bad reviews. Perhaps television companies could even be encouraged to re-establish the link between those who work in the haunted fish-tank and live practitioners (given that the schism between them seems as great as that in the church in the 16th century).

Until this utopian state is reached, owners such as Lloyd Webber are our best hope. Instead of sniggering and conjecturing as to why he may be selling, we should be celebrating him and helping him and other theatre-owners to improve, modernise and liberate our great venues. They are cathedrals and, like cathedrals, should be open to everyone, all the time. They are places of thought, laughter, entertainment, joy and reflection. Without them we would be poorer; and, without Andrew Lloyd Webber and his fellows, we would have a desert like the one that has engulfed the Mermaid Theatre.

This, the late Lord Bernard Miles's dream, was the first theatre to be built in the City of London since Shakespeare's day. After a long battle to turn it into an office-block, it is now not even financially feasible for the owners to destroy it. It is a forlorn, neglected monument to the City of London's indifference. Lord Lloyd-Webber is in no danger of being such a footnote, but we should learn from what was done to Lord Miles and his theatre. This government should consider the economic advantages of a thriving West End. If our theatre-owners withdraw, jobs in all sectors will disappear. Instead of the initials of the theatres in Shaftesbury Avenue standing for Little Apples Grow Quickly (Lyric, Apollo, Gielgud, Queen's), there'll be M for McDonald's and a string of As for All Bar Ones.

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