The Week in Arts: Put our names on the seats - we paid for them

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Not wishing to be a party-pooper but ... I remain unconvinced about the need for the £90m restoration of the Royal Festival Hall, and what has emerged this week has certainly not changed my mind.

Not wishing to be a party-pooper but ... I remain unconvinced about the need for the £90m restoration of the Royal Festival Hall, and what has emerged this week has certainly not changed my mind.

I've mentioned before that it is a great shame that one of the country's best and most comfortable venues is to close for two years for improvements which are not all exactly essential. The press release this week went on again about how the toilets would be improved; but to me they seem some of the roomiest and most plentiful of any arts venue; and I'm the Egon Ronay of arts centre toilets, at least of the gents' variety.

The curse of lottery money is that it spurs arts venues to see a need for change which isn't always necessary. Improvements to the acoustics, which are necessary, could have been carried out without a two year closure.

This is a subject I would not have returned to, even on a week of good news stories and press releases about the £90m restoration. However, behind the publicity some rather alarming facts have been emerging. First, it seems that 181 job cuts (one in three of the staff) are being proposed because of the closure; staff representatives are warning that the effect on morale is "devastating", and it will be hard to continue running the venue until the closure in July 2005.

Second, (and also absent from the publicity material) it emerged that the two resident orchestras, the London Philharmonic and Philharmonia, will lose considerable amounts of box-office income during the closure, with the LPO estimating a £600,000 shortfall.

I'm also a little underwhelmed by the fuss made during the week over celebrities donating money towards the restoration, in some cases as little as £100, and having seats named in their honour. Joanna Lumley, Salman Rushdie and others will have their names on seats. But, wouldn't it have been a more fitting tribute to the history of the hall to have the seats that these people purchase named after some of the great musicians who have graced the stage?

Besides, we all give money towards the restoration through our taxes. Those of us who like a flutter have also contributed through an excess of lottery tickets. I'd wager I've spent more on lottery tickets in the last few years than some of the celebrity donors are giving. So I look forward to seeing my name on a seat in the stalls.

I just hope that in 2007, when the Hall reopens, there are staff to show me to the seat, and an orchestra solvent enough to go on stage.

Is there too much elitism in the theatre, too?

Sir Anthony Sher complained at the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday that the literary world was élitist. He cited as evidence the failure of the literary world to review and discuss his own novels. My own honour and that of this paper might be affronted by that, as I interviewed Sir Antony about one of his very fine novels and gave it a full page of publicity. And it was a broadsheet page then, too.

I know what he means, though. Most authors feel the literary world unaccountably fails to publicise their books, bookshops unaccountably fail to display them properly, and readers unaccountably fail to buy them. But there are dangers in Sir Antony's implied remedy of reviewing more novelists outside the charmed circle. Should that apply to theatre, too, I wonder? Should newspapers give more of their limited review space to neglected companies in the regions, and not make it de rigueur to review the already highly publicised National Theatre? That would be bad news for its latest production - a one-man show by Sir Antony Sher.

¿ Gwyneth Paltrow said this week she would never appear on stage with her husband's band Coldplay, because she was frightened of "the Yoko effect." These are wise words. There's nothing bands or their fans hate more than spouses getting too close to the action. But Miss Paltrow seems not to realise that, this year more than ever, Yoko Ono's reputation has been re-evaluated. Her role in The Beatles' break-up is no longer mentioned in polite society. Her "art" receives serious discussion in learned journals. She is feted on chat shows. Her straight-faced assertion that she co-wrote "Imagine" is never challenged. One cannot refer disparagingly to such a saintly figure as an "effect."

Do keep up, Gwyn.

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