The names of theatres have emotional and sentimental resonance. Let's value their history

Arts venues must resist unsuitable names in the interests of sponsorship
  • @davidlister1

Names of famous venues are changing. Me, I can’t quite come to terms with the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith, still less the Phones 4U Arena in Manchester. But if I could get over the ugliness of the names, I’m sure I’d enjoy the show.

When familiar arts venues take on totally unsuitable names in the interests of sponsorship, I get a little queasy. That’s why queasiness started to affect my stomach when the Ambassador Theatre Group announced was going to allow some of its most famous theatres to be renamed. This too would be in the interests of sponsorship.

Now the ATG is not just any old theatre group. It is one of the most successful in the world, owning some of the most famous names in Theatreland in London, and several others in the regions. So I am bracing myself for the next short news item saying that the Duke of York’s has been renamed the Duke of Eventim, the Ambassdor’s itself has become the Phones 4U Ambassador (though that might sound a little too much like a secretary speaking) while a walk through the West End could find the Fly Emirates Donmar Warehouse, and a journey north the L’Oreal Because You’re Worth It Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent.

It makes me queasy because, whatever the logic of business might say, I don’t think these theatres totally belong to the Ambassador Theatre Group. Their names, history and tradition belong to all of us. That’s why some years ago I was among those campaigning against the Royal Court Theatre being renamed the Jerwood (a money-raising plan that was very much on the cards). In the end a reasonable compromise was reached and the theatre in London’s Sloane Square proclaims the Jerwood Theatres At The Royal Court.

The names of theatres have emotional and sentimental resonance. They have history. They bring back memories of performances and great evenings out. Which is not to say they should never be renamed. Some of the names are pretty prosaic. But if they are to be changed why not name them after great actors, actresses, playwrights and directors, as the Comedy became the Harold Pinter and the Globe became the Gielgud? The Aldwych, which is after all named only after a street, should perhaps one day be the Peter Hall theatre to immortalise the founding director of the RSC, which spent so many seasons there. Performers like Peggy Ashcroft and Alec Guinness, playwrights such as Tom Stoppard and Terence Rattigan all merit theatres in their name. None currently has a West End playhouse named after them.

Theatre is a live and living art, but playhouses should proclaim a sense of identity, a sense of theatre and of theatre’s traditions. Renaming them after current, possibly short-term, commercial sponsors would betray that sense of tradition. The Ambassador Theatre Group is run by a married couple, Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire, who year after year are named the two most powerful people in theatre. If they barter the names of their theatres, it will be a questionable use of that power.

The National Gallery needs friends

When Tate Britain’s revamp is unveiled next week, I will be particularly interested to see the new Members’ room, which will be a much bigger and grander space than the previous black hole of Calcutta in the Millbank building. The Tate has recognised, as has the Royal Academy which has also radically expanded its Friends’ room into a virtual private club, that gallery-goers really value a good space and good facilities in these areas. Friends or Members also, of course, bring in masses of money in subscriptions to these always cash-strapped national venues. So, one has to wonder, especially at a time when everyone complains about cuts in arts funding, why the National Gallery has no Friends area and indeed no “Friends” at all. Do they not want the extra revenue? Do they not want to give their regular visitors the bonus of a private space in the building? The Culture Secretary might wish to raise it with them next time they mention the matter of funding.

Mandatory dress codes? No thanks

The marvellous band Arcade Fire (if you haven’t got the new album, get it) insisted that fans attending their shows in London this week put on formal or fancy dress costume. I love the band, but am less keen on them or any band making purchase of tickets dependent on a mandatory dress code. I couldn’t make it to the gig, but had I gone I would have turned up dressed as “boring suburbanite”. They’d have probably let me in, as they wouldn’t have encountered anything so unusual on the road for a long time.