Theatre group to sell big names

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The Independent Online
VIRTUALLY ALL of London's most famous theatres, including the Palladium and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, will change hands in the next few months after the company that owns them was put up for sale.

A buyer for Stoll Moss Theatres, Britain's largest theatre owner, is being sought after it was put on the market by the Australian Heytesbury Group.

Janet Holmes a Court, Heytesbury's chairman and widow of Australian tycoon Robert Holmes a Court said: "I have had a fantastic time running this company and it's right for me now to focus my energies on my home base which will always be Australia."

It is thought that Mrs Holmes a Court is offloading Stoll Moss, Heytesbury's sole European asset, because she plans to launch a political career in Australia.

The move will mean that most of London's theatreland will be under new ownership by the end of the year as London's second largest theatre owner, Cresent, is also on the market.

The Stoll Moss portfolio includes the Cambridge, Her Majesty's, Queen's, Lyric, Gielgud, Apollo, Garrick and Duchess theatres. Advisers for Mrs Holmes a Court have instructed SG Hambros, the City investment bank, to find a buyer for the business, said to be worth pounds 100m.

The most likely appears to be SFX Entertainment, the US company that is the world's largest operator of live entertainment venues. It recently bought the assets to Livent, the Broadway theatre owner in New York. One other potential buyer is the impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who recently outbid Stoll Moss to buy the freeholds of the Queen's and the Gielgud theatres, but it is thought that the asking price may be too high.

The proposed sale will not please Mrs Holmes a Court's son Peter, who runs New York theatre company Back Row. He was outbid by SFX for Livent's assets and is likely to oppose the sale of Stoll Moss.

Stoll Moss, which has 700 employees, had a pre-tax profit in 1997 of pounds 4.8m.

Venues in London's West End are particularly sought after because of a lack of space in the area. Last year London's theatreland made pounds 250 million in ticket sales alone and probably doubled that with catering and other sales. Despite this many theatres have struggled because of high production costs and unpopular shows.