David Lister: A big hand for the producer with a heart as well as an accountant

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The Independent Online

The West End is to have a new theatre. Sort of. It will, more accurately, have a new space, carved out of the top of an existing theatre building.

But don't let semantics get in the way of what is a genuinely innovative gesture from Sir Cameron Mackintosh. The West End producer has a heart as well as an accountant and he should be thanked for taking steps to make theatregoing a little less of an ordeal than it can be at present. He, unlike some of his colleagues, is prepared to talk about and do something about the things that concern audiences rather than theatre professionals: leg room; bar space; and a lack of lavatories. In the modifications Sir Cameron is making to some of his theatres, improving these areas will be paramount. But, unquestionably, his most daring and most expensive gesture is a new studio space above the Queen's Theatre, seating just 500 people.

This is something the West End does need, a commercial venue whose size and intimacy will attract directors, actors and writers who can bring to the commercial heart of Britain's theatre the same vibrancy that can be found on the subsidised fringe.

In recent years some of the biggest buzz in theatre has been around venues such as the Almeida and Donmar in London, and the Traverse in Edinburgh; intimate venues attracting new writers and a generation of actors and directors unwilling, and in many cases unable, to work in the traditional larger spaces. Audiences too have relished the chance to feel that they are in the same room as the actors.

One reason vacancies at the top of the National Theatre and RSC receive so few applications is a genuine fear of working in theatres whose large size is unfashionable, and which only a very few directors - the likes of Nicholas Hytner and Trevor Nunn - can utilise with success.

Now the West End will be able to experience the sort of intimate stagings that have enthralled audiences at the Donmar and Almeida. Productions from those venues, the ones that need a small space but have to give way to other productions, can transfer to Sir Cameron's new Sondheim Theatre. With luck. Sir Cameron will also use his new space to present the best of regional theatre, absurdly little of which is seen in London.

Now he just has to abolish the iniquitous booking fees and "handling charges" on the price of tickets that, frankly, infuriate the public much more than the ageing fabric of the buildings. Do that, Sir Cameron, and they'll be queuing round the block for your new theatre.

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