So, darlings, how would you spend £125m to save Theatreland?

Kevin Spacey and an all-star cast star in Westminster funding thriller. By Francis Elliott
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The Independent Culture

A cast-list of British theatre's most illustrious names is being assembled to perform on a very different stage. Their audience will be a small but influential group of MPs, and the plaudit they hope to receive is a £125m bail-out for the West End to revamp the shabby grandeur of many of London's most famous and historic venues.

A cast-list of British theatre's most illustrious names is being assembled to perform on a very different stage. Their audience will be a small but influential group of MPs, and the plaudit they hope to receive is a £125m bail-out for the West End to revamp the shabby grandeur of many of London's most famous and historic venues.

Kevin Spacey, Dame Helen Mirren and Alan Bennett are among those billed for performances in the House of Commons at a series of hearings to request the funding.

For many theatre-goers, their experiences have been clouded by the conditions of the Victorian and Edwardian buildings, whether hunched into undersized seats with little leg room, jostled as they crowd into small public areas or joining interminable queues for the ladies' toilets.

Ministers are currently considering a request from theatre owners to fund up to half of the estimated £250m which is said to be needed to drag Theatreland into the 21st century. The rest would come from the industry itself.

Sir Gerald Kaufman MP, the chairman of the Commons culture committee, is understood to be against suggestions of using heritage lottery cash to subsidise wealthy impresarios such as Andrew Lloyd Webber.

However he has been persuaded to let the theatre owners make their case in a special investigation beginning later this month. A source close to the committee said it would call the Oscar-winning US actor Spacey, who is the artistic director of the Old Vic, as well as such stalwarts of the West End as Mirren.

"It is undeniable that many of London's theatres are woefully out of date. The seats were designed for Edwardian bottoms and many of the other facilities are, frankly, below what one expects given the ticket prices. What we need to establish is whether it can be right to spend lottery cash on privately owned theatres," the source said.

A report by the Theatres Trust in 2003 concluded that at least £17m a year would need to be spent for the next 15 years to bring the buildings up to scratch.

Some theatre owners have already begun their own restoration projects, with Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the creative producer behind Cats and Les Misérables committed to spending a total of £30m over the coming years. He has already spent £7m of that updating the Prince of Wales theatre. But many theatre owners say they do not generate enough cash from their venues to cover refurbishment expenses.

Nick Allott, the managing director of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd, said: "It would be complete folly for us to allow the downward spiral to continue."

Rosemary Squire, the executive director and co-founder of the Ambassador Theatre Group which operates 12 West End venues, said: "These buildings are listed, so it's not as if they can be turned into shops or car parks to bring in more money for the owners. There's every justification for public money. It is not lining the pockets of some commercial operator."

Among the problems identified in the 40 West End venues was that two-thirds required more ladies' toilets, half had a number of seats with restricted views and 40 per cent needed major restoration. A quarter of all seats were said not to have adequate leg room. Mr Allott said he wasassured the money will be made available: "We are entirely confident that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will facilitate the release of funds."

Additional reporting by Anthony Barnes

CRITICS ON THE WEST END'S WORST

Nicholas de Jongh (London 'Evening Standard')

The Barbican (built 1982)

"The Barbican is a dreadful theatre for bad sight-lines. The leg room is not good either... and the aisle seats are terrible because the view of the stage is obscured."

Georgina Brown ('Mail on Sunday')

Shaftesbury (1911)

"I hate the Shaftesbury - it has no soul. The bar is a terribly cramped place to meet anyone and you have to walk about three miles to the loo. And they have this awful system of not letting you in until a particular time."

Michael Billington ('Guardian')

Aldwych (1905)

"If you sit in the rear stalls you have an overhang from the circle above and you can't see the upper half of the stage. So when Romeo and Juliet was on, you couldn't see Juliet in the balcony."

Charles Spencer ('Telegraph')

Shaftesbury (1911)

"It's very hard to pick one because there are so many of them. The Shaftesbury is a barn of a place: you can get lost trying to find the way to the gents, the bars are impossible and it always has crap shows on."

Kate Bassett ('IoS')

The Playhouse (1907)

"When I recently went there to see Romeo and Juliet by an Icelandic company, the temperature control seemed to be desperately trying to compensate - it was like being in a jungle."

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