No West End theatre owner in modern times has expended quite so much love, care or attention - and most importantly, hard cash - on his venues as Cameron Mackintosh. Last night the latest - and now brightest - jewel in his theatre-owning crown was officially unveiled with the opening night of Ivanov at Wyndham’s, that launches a year-long residency for the Donmar Warehouse there; and before the show, Cameron (accompanied for part of it by the Donmar’s Michael Grandage) proudly took a press party around the venue, from stalls to balcony and every bar (and particularly toilet) in between.
One of Cameron’s most enduring legacies will surely be the provision of extra loos - especially for the ladies - throughout the venues he runs; as someone (it may have been Charlie Spencer) dubbed him, he’s become the patron saint of ladies’ loos, and they seem to be up every staircase you look here!
Cameron also ushered us outside the theatre onto the theatre to watch the lighting of an Olympic-type flame atop the venue; but by the time we got to the street someone had jumped the gun and it was already burning. That was one glitch to the proceedings; another was the arrival of two fire engines, twenty minutes before the start of the performance, presumably tipped off by some busybody amongst the public that the theatre was on fire, whereas just that flame was — but then it was an unusual sight. And wandering around the theatre, Cameron - with his tenacious attention to detail - also pointed out a missing grill to an air-conditioning unit in the stalls bar to one of his staff to sort out before the public arrived.
But otherwise, this theatre - which has always been one of my favourite West End addresses, both for its lovely intimacy and the blue velvet warmth of its decoration - is a beauty; and the wonderful thing about this £3m restoration is that it doesn’t really feel like a thing has changed.
It feels beautifully familiar and uncompromised - even the stalls centre aisle remains, which have been removed from all the other theatres in the Delfont Mackintosh stable and replaced by continental seating that stretches across the width of the house. And the seats, at least in the stalls and dress circle, are still the comfortable, curved-back ones that were always here, and haven’t been replaced by the rather more severe, straight-backed ones in his other houses. (Up in the balcony, where there used to be merely benches, there are new seats with tall, stiff backs, that passed by brief buttock test for comfort, though I didn’t spend more than a few minutes in one).
But the theatre is also newly-bathed in a warm sense of enveloping luxury; and those are just the visible aspects, with beautiful decorative touches and flourishes throughout that have restored many of the theatre’s original features from when it first opened in 1899, from recreations of original plasterwork to a careful restoration of the ceiling painting. There are also, unseen to the public, such improvements as a brand-new flying system that the theatre never had before; and completely refurbished dressing rooms, too, for the actors (some of whom have joked that they want Cameron to come and help them refurbish their flats now, he told us).
All of this has been achieved in just over four months - work commenced on April 28, after the closure the previous weekend of The History Boys, and the theatre was ready for the first preview of Ivanov on September 12. A couple of years ago Cameron told me in an interview, “Having these theatres is lovely, but they’re a big responsibility. They’re all a hundred years old, and you know that if you left your own home for 100 years, you’d soon be cold, miserable and wet. Why should it be any different for these theatres?”
He has duly put his money where his mouth is; and it’s shaming that the rest of the West End can’t - or won’t — follow suit. Of course, Cameron has made a great deal of money from his career in the theatre, but he’s only too happy to re-invest it in what matters: as he also told me in that interview, “The business has been very good to me. And I get an enormous amount of pleasure overseeing the design of the carpets and finding the wallpaper. I love old buildings, and to have these beautiful buildings that you could never afford to build today is fantastic.”
More controversially, perhaps, he has also compulsorily conscripted the theatregoing public into making their own contribution: he revealed last night that the restoration fee surcharge on each ticket sold for shows at his theatres has so far raised some £3-£4m, but then he has spent more than £30m so far. At least the public can see where their money is going.
By contrast, a few weeks ago I spoke to Andrew Lloyd Webber, too - and asked him what he was doing about his theatres. He replied, “We’ve done quite a lot to them - the Palace is in very good shape, and the Palladium is all re-seated now and in pretty good shape, too, but we can’t rip out the seats and run it like a charity. You can’t go on moaning about the conditions in the West End when we’ve got a listed building requirement that makes it impossible to do very much about them. To restore the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane to standard of Opera House today you would be talking of £200-£300m. Nobody can do that. I’m told by people who did the building survey there that if it was not Grade 1 listed, it would probably cost between £2-£3m to put in air-conditioning, for example, but because there are no cavity walls because of the date of the building, we’re talking more like £30m. If we are going to want to keep buildings like it and the Palace, I would have thought maybe not in my lifetime but the next generation’s lifetime, we would have to have a public subsidy and have the theatres go into the public sector somehow, or they ain’t going to survive.”
Not that Lloyd Webber thinks they should all necessarily survive anyway. “As I said in a House of Lords debate, most of them should be demolished and replaced. I love Victorian architecture, but you cannot alter the fact that a lot of these theatres were built at a time when people were literally and physically a different shape, let alone there as a class system, so they have things like galleries that nobody wants to sit in now.”
But when I asked him how Mackintosh has managed to implement his own wholesale upgrade scheme, Lloyd Webber surprisingly replies, “He has a lot more money than I do. He’s a single man and doesn’t have a family so that’s his passion. We’ve done very well, but he never made the mistake of selling off his company, as I did.” That, he says, was originally done, ironically, to fund the original refurbishment of the Palace: “I made THE worst mistake of allowing the company to go public when we wanted to raise the money to be able to restore the Palace Theatre at the time. It was a terrible and costly mistake - we then had to buy it back and we are still paying off the debt in connection with that. That is why we have to be a bit careful - we can’t just plunge in and say we’re going to spend $100 m on Drury Lane. We can’t — we don’t have that money.”