Dramatic tale of two theatres: Matthew Brace reports on the contrasting fortunes of the Lyric and Riverside Studios

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The Lyric has raised pounds 340,000 which should save it from closure. However, a few streets away its great rival, Riverside Studios, faces a huge refurbishment bill which could cause its downfall.

The Riverside's future now lies in the hands of John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, who will decide next month whether to allow its sale.

As Mr Gummer makes up his mind, Hammersmith's two main theatres will meet next month to discuss plans to work together for the first time. Talks will also include the area's third stage venue, the Bush Theatre.

The Lyric is just shy of its target of pounds 350,000 following a gift of pounds 10,000 this week from United International Pictures, the film company based next door. But it still needs to raise the extra pounds 10,000.

The Lyric's fate has hung in the balance since November when an appeal was launched to save it - supported by Ruby Wax, Griff Rhys Jones and Eddie Izzard. A spokeswoman said without their efforts the theatre would still be facing closure.

'The deadline was April but luckily the banks gave us more time and we have now nearly reached our target,' she said.

'We're very pleased. There's been a theatre on this site since 1888 and the Lyric is very much a part of Hammersmith life.'

Peter Charles, of UIP, said he was delighted to hand over the money not just because it was to a fellow arts cause, but also because it was 'a local organisation supporting another local organisation'.

'We thought this was a very worthy cause. The theatre has an extremely high reputation nationally. ' ,

The dilapidated Riverside Studios, however, is closed and poised to launch an appeal for more than pounds 2m for refurbishment. The last play to be staged there, The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol , finished in April, 1993.

William Burdett-Coutts, the director since October and on whom much hope is pinned, says he needs to raise up to pounds 2.5m to ensure the rejuvenation of the studios.

Actors, directors and the public will be called upon to help save the studios.' It would be tragic if the Riverside closed. There is immense potential here which is untapped but which we could harness if we get past the financial problems.'

When he took up office at the studios, located on a picturesque Thames-side site by Hammersmith Bridge, he was faced with a pounds 300,000 deficit as well as a building in serious disrepair.

His arrival was marred by redundancies as he cut staff from 33 to nine. Now he hopes to restore the Riverside in time to stage first nights in September.

He plans to build three performance studios, able to hold a total of more than one thousand people, two large studios capable of operating as television studios, a 200-seat cinema and a rehearsal studio.

Mr Burdett-Coutts says he will be relying on the national lottery for money, as well as running fund-raising events and street collections.

He has plans for a celebrity line-up of his own, possibly including Alan Rickman, the actor who led an unsuccessful consortium to take over the Riverside last year.

Mr Burdett-Coutts's plans are on hold as he waits for a decision from Mr Gummer on his request to allow the Riverside Trust to buy the studios from the council so repair work can begin.

It is believed the council is offering the Trust the property for pounds 1 instead of the pounds 1.2m it is worth, while halting its annual pounds 300,000 grant.

Tim Stanley, leader of the council's Labour group, believes the Government will try to prevent the transfer of the building into the hands of the trust. 'I suspect that the Secretary of State will sit on it until the Riverside folds. The Government's always considered it to be a radical, left-wing theatre.'

However the Department of the Environment rejected the accusation yesterday. 'Pure speculation,' said a spokesman. 'A decision is expected very, very shortly. Mr Gummer has an impeccable track record with matters to do with the arts.'

Mr Burdett-Coutts said he did not expect a refusal from the Government, but would fight such a decision if necessary. 'If they did it would be extremely small-minded. If it turned into a public dispute I can tell you there is enough public support to fight it.'

He has plans to utilise the stretch of Thames frontage that runs past his office window at the rear of the complex. There he hopes to make use of a former car ferry to float a three-storey, 400-seat cafe-bar, much to the annoyance of some neighbours who have protested to the council about the plans.

'We have this wonderful river view here which has no access to it,' he said. 'It would be great to have another attraction there for visitors.

'And I have heard that as many as 46,000 people travel over Hammersmith Bridge each day, so having a bar there would also be a great advert for the studios.'

He is no stranger to the river, having spent six months living on a barge moored next to the studios in 1979.

However, Mr Burdett-Coutts said he was looking further than his own back yard when considering the value of the Riverside Studios. 'Its history is unique and it could also help west London become an immense art engine. I am meeting with the Lyric on June 16 to talk over some ideas.

'The reason I didn't get together with the Lyric when they launched their campaign in November was because I had only just arrived and hadn't even settled in. And they went ahead without letting us know.'

(Photograph omitted)

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