Baronet poised to snatch theatre empire

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THIS SUMMER London's Theatreland is selling out in more ways than one. Eighteen venues have suddenly appeared on the market and four other London playhouses changed hands a fortnight ago. City sources last night linked Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen, the old-Etonian baronet, pro-hunting lobbyist and former Tory party candidate, with a bid for the 10 West End theatres put up for sale by the West End giant Stoll Moss, which include the Palladium and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

The West End, meanwhile, is busy flogging its most lucrative tourist product - the type of nostalgic musical that punters go into humming all the tunes - with more zest than usual.

Enter one major bidder who appears to favour just this type of product: Mr Waley-Cohen, whose most infamous venue, St Martin's, hasn't had to pick a new show since 1952. Who needs to when The Mousetrap can coax in the biggest share of the cheese? "If the right theatre comes up at the right price, I would be interested," said Mr Waley-Cohen, 53, who also runs the Savoy Vaudeville and the Victoria Palace, where, for an evening's entertainment, you can choose between Hay Fever, by Noel Coward, Soul Train - a musical - and Perfect Days, a play described by this week's Time Out as: "Hardly ground-breaking stuff." A charge which could fairly be levelled at the rest of Theatreland at the moment. A quick browse through this week's listings magazines shows a glut of musicals, which currently account for around 70 per cent of West End shows; the remainder are either textbook classics by the likes of Osborne and Wilde or revivals such as Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. The French-windows-and-drinks-trolley plays are still extremely popular, and even the National Theatre seems starkly retrospective in its choice of current material.

Some would say "plus ca change". Over 40 years ago, Kenneth Tynan was bemoaning the cynically commercial and lowbrow content of much of the West End. But then, they did have Osborne and Orton.

Still, if Mr Waley-Cohen chooses to buy, he will certainly enjoy the pick of the field as other investors swiftly exeunt stage left. So what's shaken Luvvieland? Why are there no bids from theatre's other major commercial players? On the surface there's no reason for such a collective show of cold feet. Theatre attendance levels have enjoyed a steady period of growth in the last two years, exceeding 11.5 million last year. Hollywood heavyweights such as Kevin Spacey and Nicole Kidman are desperate to tread the boards for a pittance. London's West End enjoys more shows and bigger audiences than even Broadway: pounds 250 million is spent on tickets and a similar amount on London's transport, restaurants and bars.

Still, though, theatre ownership is an extremely risky business with little chance of profit. Theatre impresarios are only too aware that a million things can go wrong between conception and production. And there is no guaranteed formula, even though the array of ubiquitous posters promoting West End shows implies otherwise. To keep an 800-seat West End theatre open for a week can cost pounds 15,000, and that can easily double. A hot spell that keeps audiences' bums on cafe, not theatre, seats can close a show within weeks.

Such financial insecurities reflect a much deeper crisis in London's West End: one of marketing and image. As Mr Waley-Cohen has shrewdly noted, there's a desperate need to catch audiences while they're still young. He has even set up the Mousetrap Foundation to encourage young people to attend the theatre. More than 2,000 children from 98 schools have attended Art, the award-winning play, thanks to help from the foundation.

"I made the decision to put something back and I recognised that if we don't introduce children to the theatre, there might not be an audience tomorrow," he says.

But once those children turn into teenagers and young adults, it's doubtful that he'll sustain their loyalties. As long as Theatreland is synonymous with coachloads of tourists clutching Andrew Lloyd-Webber programmes, young people will remain an elusive market.

Despite producers' efforts to pull in a hipper audience with offerings like Mark Ravenshill's Shopping and Fucking, much of the post-modern Tarantino crowd still perceives theatre to be white, middle-aged and predictable. Sir Ian McKellen was particularly damning when he announced his plans to move to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, saying, "Who are you playing to at the Olivier Theatre ... last night at Oklahoma there wasn't a black face in the audience. That's an odd thing in this city and at this time ... "

Whoever bids for the current group of theatres for sale will have to bear this in mind. Sally Greene, the West End impresario, says that new investors will need to attract a youthful market. "If it were me, I'd improve the theatres' image by making sure that every group of young people had something they could enjoy."

Terry Hands, director of Clywd Theatr and director emeritus of the RSC, argues that the West End's image crisis depends entirely upon the influence of regional theatre.

"The West End is the Wall Street of the entertainment industry. You develop your work elsewhere and bring it to the commercial heart to exploit it," he says.

"If I was going to invest I would look at what Chris Smith plans to do for the arts in the UK. If I felt he was putting money into the regionals then I'd buy. Don't expect supermarkets to grow produce on their shelves when they just sell it."

Maybe Janet Holmes a Court, the Australian owner of Stoll Moss, is right to quit while she's ahead (her heart is set on Australian politics).

Mr Waley-Cohen admits: "I worry about a lot of things in the theatre. I worry about the quality of shows and whether people will go on wanting to act in live shows, rather than in other forms."

As long as tourists keep flocking to The Mousetrap, he needn't worry at all.