West End couple named most powerful in theatre

Founders of Ambassador Theatre Group finish top of 'Stage' listing for first time

They met more than three decades ago outside a London box office, fell in love and went on to create one of the country's largest theatre groups. Now the couple known as "Mr and Mrs West End" have been declared the most influential people in British theatre.

Rosemary Squire and Howard Panter, the husband and wife founders of the Ambassador Theatre Group, have been awarded the No 1 spot by The Stage newspaper, which compiles a list of the top 100 theatre executives at the end of every year.

For much of the past 14 years two names have dominated the list. Between them Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh have amassed 11 No 1 spots, leaving little room for anyone else.

But Ms Squire and Mr Panter's acquisition in November of rival theatre group Live Nation gave Ambassador more venues and seats than any of their competitors and created a £150m empire with the kind of clout to place Kiera Knightly in a modern West End reworking of Molière's The Misanthrope and Pamela Anderson in a Wimbledon pantomime.

For theatre fans the £90m merger was the icing on the cake in a year that has seen the nation's playhouses show remarkable tenacity during the worst recession in decades. Despite doom-laden reports at the beginning of the year, ticket sales in the West End have risen by 5 per cent.

"Theatre is often resilient during a recession," Mr Panter, 60, told The Independent yesterday. "You might not buy a new car or a new house in a recession but you'll still go out with your partner, or take your mother out for her birthday. When you have something like a war on, or a crisis or a recession, you want to gather in the dark by the camp-fire and hear stories."

It was while producing a critically admired but financially disastrous play more than 30 years ago that Mr Panter first came across his wife-to-be, who was selling tickets at the box office. They went their separate ways to become theatre managers but their careers merged when Ms Squire, now 53, was made redundant during maternity leave with her second child.

The pair embarked on theatre managing together, acquiring their first playhouse in Woking, Surrey, before buying the Duke of York's Theatre in St Martin's Lane in 1992. The group now owns 39 venues across the country. Their purchase of Live Nation brought key regional theatres such as the Edinburgh Playhouse and the Bristol Hippodrome under the Ambassador umbrella as well as two of the most popular West End musical crowd-pleasers of the moment, The Lion King at The Lyceum and Wicked at the Apollo Victoria.

Mr Panter said: "I like to think Rosemary and I work very well as a team. We absolutely appreciate that what happens on the stage – the talent and the content – is equally important as the business side, which has to be taken seriously if a theatre group is to succeed."

Alistair Smith, the editor of The Stage, added: "Ambassador Theatre Group's purchase of Live Nation's UK venues has created a new theatrical superpower – the largest theatre operator of the modern era. In the regions, especially, it dwarfs all competition. [Howard and Rosemary] will take some budging in future years."

Dramatis personae: The Stage's top 10

*1. Rosemary Squire & Howard Panter (Ambassador Theatre Group)

*2. Cameron Mackintosh

*3. Andrew Lloyd Webber

*4. Michael Grandage (Donmar Warehouse)

*5. Nicholas Hytner (NT)

*6. Nica Burns & Max Weitzenhoffer (Nimax)

*7. Dominic Cooke (Royal Court Theatre)

*8. Bill Kenwright

*9. Michael Boyd (RSC)

*10. Kevin Spacey & Sally Green (Old Vic)