West End theatres need £250m to bring them up to scratch

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The Independent Culture

West End theatres owned by some of the richest men in Britain need Government support to pay for the £250m of refurbishments necessary to stop audiences deserting, a report will claim today.

Most of the commercial venues in London's theatreland are listed buildings more than 100 years old and owners could not be expected to bring them up to scratch on their own, according to the Theatres Trust, a body founded by Government to protect UK theatres.

Peter Longman, the trust's director, said owners, such as Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, were doing all they could to improve conditions with £6m a year being spent on renovations. Sir Cameron recently announced additional plans for refurbishments likely to cost at least £30m in the theatres he owned.

But the scale of the improvements needed - an estimated £250m - was such that owners now needed Government help, whether through the national lottery, special tax concessions or outright investment.

"Theatres all over the rest of the country, and the subsidised ones in London, have been receiving help for modernisation programmes over many years," Mr Longman said.

"Our researches have demonstrated that it is no longer realistic to expect commercial West End owners to put things right without outside assistance. We will now be seeking to discuss these issues with other interested parties and with the Government."

The report, Act Now! Modernising London's West End Theatres, warned that doing nothing was not an option if theatre, a tourism attraction in the capital, was to survive. "Theatre audiences cannot be expected to tolerate indefinitely conditions that reflect theatre-going 100 years ago."

The investigation into the 40 commercially-owned theatres in the West End showed they accounted for 10 million ticket sales last year. Thirty-three are listed as buildings of special architectural or historical interest. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Theatre Royal Haymarket are both Grade I, nine others are Grade II* and the other 22 are grade II. Only two - the Donmar Warehouse and the New London - have been created since the Second World War.

The West End is controlled by four main theatre groups. They are the Ambassador Theatre Group, which owns or runs 10 venues, Clear Channel Entertainment, which owns or runs three of the largest musical houses, Delfont Mackintosh, Cameron Mackintosh's company, which owns three theatres and has recently acquired the leases or freehold for four more, and Really Useful Theatres, in which Andrew Lloyd-Webber is a shareholder, which owns or operates 13 venues. But of every 10 productions that open in the West End, about seven fail to recoup their investment costs, another two break even, and only one in 10 returns a profit. Up to half may be losing their owners money or be only just breaking even at any one time, the report claimed.

Richard Pulford, of the Society of London Theatre, said nobody had ever made money out of owning theatres. Both Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd-Webber had chosen to invest in theatres from money made from shows they had either written or produced - and ploughed it back in to the industry.