West End still a smash, but London's marginal theatres face a struggle

New report paints a depressing picture  for the smaller venues  throughout the capital
  • @MrNickClark

The West End may be flourishing but the capital’s diverse range of smaller theatres are facing a struggle to survive, a new report warns.

Half the capital’s small venues fear financial pressures could force them out of business.

The report, called Centre Stage, compiled by the London Assembly, has found the city’s fringe theatre is under threat from rising rents and costs, a fall in consumer spending and arts funding cuts.

Many landlords are also looking at selling venues to take advantage of London’s soaring property prices.

Of the 105 small theatres in the city covered by the report, 50 per cent said they were “insecure” about the future, while one in five felt “very insecure”.  As many as a third of theatre managers said their venues were at risk of being be sold off or converted by developers.

Tom Copley led the investigation into the issues facing London’s smaller venues on behalf of the London Assembly.

He said it was clear the smaller venues “are facing real difficulties” especially at a time when landlords increasingly feel it would be more lucrative to redevelop sites into luxury apartments. He continued: “It would be a terrible loss to the capital if these venues were allowed to disappear.”

London has close to 200 theatre venues and over 32,000 theatrical performances each year, according to the World Cities Culture Report. Its major commercial and subsidised theatres shrugged off the “Olympic effect” with the ninth successive year of record box office returns in 2012.

Yet the report found a different picture outside Theatreland. Mr Copley said: “We could see the real renaissance of small theatres in London coming to an end. Then over time there will be a decline if nothing is done.”

The report is partly a call to arms to protect the capital’s small theatres, including lobbying the Mayor to appoint a new ambassador to bring the sector together to respond to the raft of challenges.

It sets out suggestions to help put the groups on more secure financial footing, boost audiences and make it easier for them to raise funds to repair the buildings.

Among the recommendations is that small theatre groups should protect their buildings by getting their names on lists of “assets of community value”.

This would them a six-month window to bid for a venue should the owner decide to sell. More small groups should apply for Arts Council funding, while the Greater London Authority should set up a fund to help theatres in an attempt to draw in philanthropic support it said.

The report also calls on Transport for London to enable venues to advertise in tube, rail and tram stations by replacing out-of-date poster or filling empty spaces with promotional material for local productions. Venues should combine marketing efforts, it added.

“These are places where actors, producers and directors hone their skills and where hundreds of new productions are staged every year,” Mr Copley said.

The need to renovate buildings is the most serious medium to long-term risk facing London’s small theatres, the report found.

Of the theatre managers quizzed, 75 per cent said “significant repairs or upgrades” were required. This ranged from plumbing problems, damaged roofs and disabled access to sound-proofing, insulation and better seating.

Despite a pressing need to address the structural issues, 93 per cent of respondents were yet to raise the money to carry out the work.

The report said “theatres need the right support from funding organisations” such as the GLA and its regeneration funds and the Arts Council’s capital programme to tackle the necessary work.