Millionairess gives West End a new lease of life

Janet Holmes a Court, the Australian millionairess who owns 10 West End theatres, is on a mission to make them people-friendly. Yesterday she completed the latest phase in the pounds 20m refurbishment of Stoll Moss Theatres, when a pounds 1m renovation at the Lyric Theatre saw the cosy foyer's silver-leaf ceilings and wood panelling restored, new seats with added leg room for the audience,and a removal of the flock wallpaper in the auditorium and its replacement with a painted deep maroon .

It is too glib to say that Mrs Holmes a Court, the executive chairman of Stoll Moss Theatres, has brought a woman's eye to theatre. But, without question the changes she has instigated have all been aimed at making theatregoing a more comfortable experience.

"Some of these buildings have been extremely badly neglected for decades," she said. "I think theatre-goers have been getting a rough deal. I noticed immediately there was a problem with women's lavatories. Here at the Lyric we had a gents' toilet which had 16 positions and a ladies' toilet with two. And it doesn't compute. We've swapped that round. Now the ladies have 10 cubicles and the gents have two. Before, ladies had to make a decision at the interval whether to have a drink or spend the whole time queuing. "The Lyric, the oldest theatre on Shaftresbury Avenue, had takeaway Indian restaurant flock wallpaper, which is very nice in an Indian restaurant, but not in an 1888 theatre. And people are four inches taller now than they were in 1888. I noticed the lack of leg room in West End theatre the moment I came here. We've put in continental seating with much better leg room."

The widow of the Australian businessman Robert Holmes a Court, who died of a heart attack in 1990, Mrs Holmes a Court is relishing playing a far more active role in the Stoll Moss empire than her late husband.

The empire includes flagships like the London Palladium and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, as well as the bulk of Shaftesbury Avenue, and a massive cattle business back in Australia.