THEATRE / Reversal of fortune: A 21-year-old has bold new plans to save the Mermaid Theatre. Charles Nevin meets the man with a mission

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The Independent Culture
DOWN IN Puddle Dock, by Blackfriars Bridge in the City of London, there is something stirring. Muhammad is coming to the Mermaid: Muhammad Ali, that is, for the British opening of Ali, Geoffrey Ewing's one-man off-Broadway play based on the champion's life.

This is exciting and unusual, but then anyone coming to the Mermaid recently has been quite an event. These have not been good times for the dream and great achievement of the late Lord (Bernard) Miles. Opened in 1959, the first new theatre in the City for 300 years, its recent history has been invariably and inevitably described as 'chequered', with nearly all the post-Miles squares black ones. When you learn that the last bright spot was the stage version of Thunderbirds, you begin to get the point.

But now it has a new panjandrum, a new force, a man of youth and money who talks of dialectic and the eclectic with the energy that only someone straight from Cambridge could. This is Akbar Shamji, 21, purveyor of Ali, general manager of the Mermaid, youngest son of the owner, Abdul Shamji, sent in to save the theatre, currently costing his father around pounds 200,000 a year. Shamji senior, a Ugandan Ismaili expelled by Idi Amin, bought the Mermaid in 1983. Miles's financial difficulties became compelling after the theatre had been redeveloped in 1981 at a cost of pounds 2 1/2 m. He and his wife had put most of their money into the Mermaid; 10 years later, just before his death, he was discovered almost destitute.

In 1983, Abdul Shamji was, as his son puts it, 'at his peak'. He already owned two other London theatres, the Duchess and the Garrick, and part of Wembley Stadium. But his purchase of the Mermaid, says Akbar, was intended not as a business venture but as a symbol of his commitment to this country and, 'on a deeper metaphysical level, the expression of the idea that the varied cultures in this country could fuse and create'.

Things did not go well on or off the boards, however. Even with Miles, the new theatre never managed to recreate the popularity of its predecessor; the feeling that the Mermaid was a good place to be, regardless of the quality of production. Without him, it became little more than a receiving house intermittently enlivened by the RSC or Glenda Jackson's Mother Courage; its role was usurped by the Barbican, and its hopes dogged by administrative failure and recession.

Abdul Shamji, for his part, saw his Gomba company put into receivership in 1985 after the collapse of the Johnson Matthey bank. Asset sales, including the other two theatres and his bit of Wembley, saw him soon out of receivership, but in 1989 he was sentenced to 15 months' imprisonment for lying about his assets during a high-court inquiry into the JMB collapse.

He is now based in, or as Akbar puts it, 'he has moved his Monopoly board' to, East Africa, where his confiscated holdings have been returned, and from where he pursues multi-million-pound claims against the Bank of England and others over the receivership.

Akbar declines to be lured into any of his own condemnations of the City over all this, contenting himself with outlining his mission at the Mermaid, on its western fringe, as 'infusing into the psychology of the world of commerce some of the humanity of the world of arts'. Any satisfaction or symbolism in the Shamjis undertaking this role is kept firmly in pectore.

But he is an enthusiast, a pursuer of the eclectic. After Ali, there is the Chaucer Festival in July, and hopes of a Steven Berkoff Shakespearian production. The Opera Box touring company is to put on three productions a year; the Moscow State Puppet Theatre is coming. He wants Berkoff, Opera Box and others to work out of the Mermaid; the theatre is also to have its own company; the studio has been revived. 'So many people say they would love to see the Mermaid back on its feet,' he says, 'Now is their chance to come along and prove it.'

The Shamjis have money - importing Muhammad Ali and entourage does not come cheap - but their commitment to fusing culture and civilising the City is not bottomless. Ending the losses will be one measure of success. Akbar is courting sponsors and pushing the Mermaid's conference and daytime facilities. And it would be a fine thing to see a happy Mermaid again, echoing the days of Miles and its poet-packed Elizabethan original. Actually, Beaumont put it better: 'What things have we seen, done at the Mermaid] Heard words that have been . . . so nimble, and so full of subtle flame . . .'

Previews 10 June, opens 14 June (071-410 0000).

(Photograph omitted)