Independent thinking

Architects' image of a revamped Shaftesbury Theatre. Image: Bennetts Associates Architects

The Shaftesbury Theatre is something of an oddity in the West End theatre landscape. Most of Theatreland’s play and musical houses are run by multi-venue groups – Ambassador Theatre Group, Nimax, Delfont Mackintosh, Really Useful – but the Shaftesbury is an independent and is, in fact, the largest such theatre in the West End at around 1,400 seats.

The 1911 building has been owned, since 1983, by the Theatre of Comedy Company and has been run on its behalf since 2004 by chief executive James Williams. For years, the theatre had something of a reputation as a graveyard for shows, with some claiming it was ‘cursed’ and others blaming its location – a little away from the centre of the West End, at the ‘wrong’ end of Shaftesbury Avenue.

[pullquote]We want to make the Shaftesbury a complete jewel in the crown and then, who knows, let’s see what happens[/pullquote]

Certainly, when Williams first joined, it was not a theatre at its zenith. “It had a period, almost immediately before I came, where it had show after show that didn’t quite work and something needed to be found to get a rhythm back to it,” he says.

“I joined when Thoroughly Modern Millie was here and it seemed like it would stay and was doing well,” he explains, as we talk in his office high above the theatre. “Then, the first day in the chair, I thought I better pick up the phone to the producer, Paul Elliot, and he told me ‘James, we’ve got a problem’. So within my first week I was told the show was teetering.”

Having come to the Shaftesbury from his position as executive director of the Hampstead Theatre, where he had overseen the creation of that company’s glossy new home in Swiss Cottage, Williams had been brought in with a brief to make improvements to the fabric of the Shaftesbury. However, the owner of Theatre of Comedy at that time, the late Don Taffner Snr (who has since been succeeded by his son Don Jnr) was clear that there needed to be improvements at the box office, before building work could start.

“Don Taffner Snr, who employed me here, was very passionate about the building. He’d been involved since 1986 when he was first invited to become a shareholder of the Theatre of Comedy Company. He joined quite soon after a refurbishment of the building in the early 80s, which Ian Alberry looked after. That was the last major refurbishment.

James Williams
James Williams

“By the time I came along, we were about 20 years on from that. The theatre had survived but its fortunes had been chequered and Don knew that. At the same time, Don was saying to me, ‘I love that theatre, I want improvement, but I can’t see improvement until you earn some money for us. Then we can start to spend it on the building’.”

It took a while for things to fully turn around. Shows like Bat Boy, Far Pavilions, High Society and Daddy Cool followed, and while none of them were out and out disasters, they were not the long runners that a theatre the size of the Shaftesbury really needs.

But, all the while, Williams was building up relationships with producers in the industry and planning ahead. Indeed, the greatest success of Williams’ tenure at the Shaftesbury was two years in the planning.

Hairspray was the result of a partnership built up between Williams and Adam Spiegel, then working at Stage Entertainment. Stage Entertainment was looking for a base in the West End and a long-term deal was set up between the production company and the theatre in which they would place product at the Shaftesbury until they found a title that stuck. As it turned out, success struck at their second attempt, with Hairspray following Fame into the venue and running to great houses for two and a half years, making it the theatre’s most successful show since Hair in the late 1960s.

“Hairspray allowed us to relax our shoulders for a little bit and see what we should do with the theatre. The immediate aim was to improve the basic facilities. We had to start to reinvest in the building, so we developed two strategies – one was to deal with the facilities for companies backstage and the other was to deal with the facilities for the audience. The primary thing for the audience was to cool the auditorium. Suddenly we had a theatre that was full and you put 1,300 to 1,400 bodies into a building and it gets hot. It was used to running at half or less, suddenly you were generating a lot more heat.”

Refurbishment works had actually begun a little before Hairspray’s arrival, with new carpets and upholstery for the seats installed before Daddy Cool opened at the venue in 2006. Then, during Hairspray’s stay at the theatre (from 2007), backstage facilities were improved to accommodate the show – for example, a wigs room was created – as the theatre slowly started to inhabit its roof (cast shower and toilet facilities followed the wigs room) with space at ground level scarce. Williams also restored the exterior of the building, including the theatre’s original canopy.

Much of the initial work was done without recourse to a restoration levy, although one was introduced with the arrival of Flashdance in 2010. But money raised through the levy has helped contribute to the current stage of the theatre’s redevelopment, which will include the installation of a new fly tower as part of a rooftop extension that will also create extra dressing rooms and office space.

Aljaz Skorjanec and Faye Huddleston in Burn The Floor. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Aljaz Skorjanec and Faye Huddleston in Burn The Floor. Photo: Tristram Kenton

“We were probably the last of the big theatres to put on a restoration levy. We wanted to have done a significant piece of work first, so we could tell the public, ‘We’ve done this, now we’re charging for it’. Because philosophically, we felt that to say ‘we’re going to think about doing something in the future, but we’re going to take the money out of your pocket now’ was wrong. It was very similar to Cameron [Mackintosh], when he renovated all his theatres.

“By the time we finish this fly tower project, we will probably have committed to the building, over eight years, £6 million or £7 million. That’s a huge investment. We can recover some of that from the restoration levy, but it will probably take about 12 years to recoup half of that.”

As well as wanting to keep a historic London theatre in good condition, though, there are sound commercial motives for the building work. The new fly tower will hugely increase the set load that can be flown into the venue – more than doubling the capacity to 40 tons. This will mean that the theatre is able to accommodate larger shows, especially musicals. It will, says Williams, mean the Shaftesbury will be real competition for some of the West End’s other leading musical houses. He also points out that –  compared to some of its competitors – the venue has excellent ticket yield.

“It has no pillars and because of that it has some of the best sight lines,” he explains. “That means that if you’re a sell-out show, you’ve got a lot of top price tickets.”

But, of course, that does require a sell-out show. And since Hairspray closed in March 2010, the theatre has failed to replicate its success. Rock of Ages had a decent run at the venue from late 2011 to the end of 2012, but its latest show, Burn the Floor, which was co-produced by the Theatre of Comedy has recently announced that it will close early in June.

The next production planned for the theatre is Tim Rice’s musical version of From Here to Eternity, for which Williams says he has very high hopes. The final stages of the redevelopment work – including the installation of the fly tower – will not begin until that show is fully bedded in, with previews starting in September.

Time will tell, of course, whether it will be the Shaftesbury’s next big hit. But, as Williams observes, success will be primarily about the show, not the theatre it is playing in – “get the right shows in the right theatres and the theatres work”.

Williams says that he and the Taffner family’s priority is to turn the Shaftesbury into “the theatre that producers want to bring their musicals to”, something he believes will be helped by the arrival of Crossrail in 2017 and an associated shift in focus to the east of the West End.

But does Williams think that the Theatre of Comedy will ever be tempted to extend its holdings beyond its base in Camden?

“The Taffner family loves this building and they are actually the longest serving theatre owners in the West End. Since Andrew Lloyd Webber sold the Palace, the Taffner family has owned this theatre longer than anyone else has owned a theatre in the West End.

“We want to make the Shaftesbury a complete jewel in the crown and then, who knows, let’s see what happens. It’s a company that doesn’t chase needlessly after stuff. It’s a company that will grown by stealth, rather than sudden acquisition.”

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