Stage set for battle of artistic survival

Funding the arts: Virginia Bottomley is drawn into controversy over two theatres' competing claims for Arts Council grants
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The Independent Online
JOHN McKIE

Two neighbouring theatres are anxiously awaiting today's decision on grants to regional Arts Councils which could decide their future.

One, the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford, has been premiering works from major playwrights since the Second World War but faces closure in April if funds are not forthcoming.

The other, the Redgrave Theatre in Farnham, closed last January but wants to reopen with repertory productions soon. The latter enjoys some powerful support - not least that of its constituency MP, Virginia Bottomley, who also happens to be the Secretary of State for National Heritage.

The Redgrave Theatre, which put on home-grown repertory productions until it closed last January, has applied for a pounds 740,000 grant, spread over the next three years, from South East Arts. The cash would be used for reopening and for new productions. Mrs Bottomley, the MP for Surrey South- West, haspledged support and the Redgrave organisers are optimistic about securing the money.

Meanwhile, the Yvonne Arnaud, a commercial playhouse which has premiered works by the likes of Alan Ayckbourn, Tom Stoppard and Alan Bennett, has already received a grant of pounds 25,000 from South East Arts, but this is not likely to sustain it past April. Its owners are appealing to the body for urgent help.

"South East Arts have to justify why it is more important to reopen a theatre which died a year ago, with an annual audience of 50,000, than it is to keep open a live theatre with our track record, which has an audience of 160,000," said James Barber, artistic director of the Yvonne Arnaud.

The Guildford theatre already has the backing of some of the stars who have graced its stage in the past, including Dame Judi Dench, Peter Bowles and Millicent Martin. Indeed, Sir Derek Jacobi has told the Farnham Herald: "I would love to see a thriving Redgrave Theatre but the Yvonne Arnaud is receiving a bad deal from South East Arts, and I would question the level of funding for a theatre that is not up and running."

The Yvonne Arnaud has also argued that the Sybil Thorndike theatre in nearby Leatherhead receives an annual grant of pounds 180,000, although it benefits from the involvement of celebrated theatrical figures Sir Peter Hall and Bill Kenwright.

The Redgrave plans to open by October. James Gatward, the former TVS chief executive who is helping present the Redgrave's case to South East Arts, said Mrs Bottomley had been "most supportive". He added that, as the local MP, she was keen for the theatre to survive.

South East Arts' chief executive, Chris Cooper, said no decision would be taken on the awards until early next week, after today's Arts Council grants to the 10 regional arts boards in England. SEA is the lowest- funded of the regional boards.

He admitted that the Redgrave reopening took precedence over the Yvonne Arnaud's priorities. "The Redgrave is the training ground for the very talented who are going to take over Hollywood in 10 years' time. There's very few of those theatres left. We are aware of the situation in Guildford but at the end of the day, they're about a commercial profit."

The outgoing Guildford MP, David Howell, said: "I have been in touch with the Heritage Secretary and had a sympathetic voice - but no action."

Both theatres have been involved in a slanging match in the local press. James Gatward said: "If the Yvonne Arnaud is saying they want the Redgrave money, we say, 'Bugger off'."

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