After a six-month closure, the home of Les Misérables is back with a new name and lavish decor. Owner Cameron Mackintosh tells Tim Bano how the renovations have extended beyond the 1950s foyer and Edwardian auditorium to increase the number of toilets and dressing rooms
The building at 51 Shaftesbury Avenue has had quite a history. Its first show, a comedy called The Sugar Bowl, ran for 36 performances; its latest, Les Misérables, has run for almost 36 years.
In the decades between, it has hosted John Gielgud and Marlene Dietrich, Maggie Smith and Nick Jonas. It has been bought and sold, bombed, abandoned, infested by rats, visited by kings and queens, and witnessed a minor Parisian uprising eight times a week for the past 16 years. And, to paraphrase the words of Stephen Sondheim, whose name now adorns the building, it’s still here.
In fact, the venue is looking better than it has for almost a century thanks to £13.8 million, and a lot of love, from its owner Cameron Mackintosh.
The theatre sits at one end of a block on Shaftesbury Avenue, with the Gielgud at the other end. Originally, the two buildings were designed by architect WGR Sprague – a mentee of Frank Matcham – as twins. The Queen’s was the bigger and grander sibling, its opulent marble staircase soaring up through the foyer and extensive marble panelling providing not a little decadence in the stalls.
Mackintosh bought the pair in 1999, and then the whole block. About a year ago, his company Delfont Mackintosh Theatres moved its offices from the nearby Novello into the space between the two theatres.
‘The colour scheme may have resembled the spring, but it was cold, and it had a very bad effect on the complexions of its women patrons’ – W MacQueen-Pope, writing in 1959 about the theatre’s original decor
That’s where the breathless tour starts, three floors up, Mackintosh ushering me firmly through a door at one end of the offices. “We’re now in the Queen’s,” he announces as we slip imperceptibly from one building into the next, and emerge into a blank stairwell. It’s one of the last areas of the theatre to be tackled, he explains as he excuses the white walls and old paintwork, in a renovation that has lasted six months and restored the Queen’s Theatre – drab, dilapidated and slightly soulless – to its Edwardian glory days.
As we scamper around the theatre, Mackintosh holds a sheaf of pictures showing the building at various points throughout its 113-year history. It opened on October 8, 1907, named after Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII, but its initial successes were few.
Writing for The Stage in 1959, the theatre historian W MacQueen-Pope reckoned he knew exactly why that was: “The colour scheme may have resembled the spring, but it was cold, and it had a very bad effect on the complexions of its women patrons. It made them look pale, not to say pallid, in those days when hardly any make-up was worn. Women glanced at each other and said: ‘What? Do I look like that? Terrible.’ And so they did not go to the Queen’s, which languished, for women are the backbone of theatre audiences.”
In 1940, it became the first London theatre to be hit by a bomb. The whole West End had already been shut down for two weeks, so the theatre was empty. The bomb hit the front of the building, destroying the stone dome, the foyer – including the marble staircase – and the back of the auditorium.
The damage was described in the book Starlight Days: The Memoirs of Cecil Madden: “As we stood in the foyer looking up at the night sky, I could see that[…]the roof had gone and there was nothing left of the offices, nor of the main refreshment bar upstairs; the upper circle had disappeared entirely and was swinging downwards, then it fell. The box office was just a heap of rubble.”
That’s how the building remained for almost 20 years, barely touched. Journalist Monica Furlong visited the “filthy old shell” in 1958 and said it was “like squinting into some revolting dustbin. Grime and bird droppings hung from the plush rims of the boxes and from the gilded Cupids. Rats scuttled horribly in the stalls.”
Eventually, £200,000 was raised, partly from the War Damage Commission, and work began on restoring the theatre in the late 1950s. The dilemma, for architects Hugh Casson and Bryan Westwood, was whether to build in a modern style or retain the Edwardian look. They chose both.
With the auditorium relatively unscathed by the bomb damage, they made a few nods towards Edwardian grandeur, but left it fairly low-key save a “lavish use of gilding”, according to the Times. They gave the front of the building its radical glass doors, unique among West End theatres, and the black columns that support them have strange, sculptural carvings by Eric Peskett. It was an entrance at odds with its insides: a 1950s foyer, smashed up against a muted Edwardian auditorium.
That’s how it was when Mackintosh bought it in 1999. Les Misérables moved from the Palace Theatre, where it had been running for 19 years, to the Queen’s in 2004. He tells me he didn’t expect the show to stay in the theatre as long as it has, but ticket sales just never dipped. He was aware that the Queen’s needed renovation, but all he could do while keeping the theatre open was to tinker – or “make the best of a sow’s ear”, as he puts it – combined with the odd grand gesture such as replacing all the seats a few years ago.
Mackintosh has spent about £125 million renovating the eight theatres in the Delfont Mackintosh portfolio, but he’s only been able to do this in small doses. The theatres would shut for a few weeks, work would be done, and they’d reopen feeling a bit shinier and fitter for purpose.
He knew that the Queen’s needed something big. That meant properly shutting down a theatre with his – maybe the world’s – most successful show for at least five months. When that happens, the financial hit is twofold: not only are you spending money on renovations, you’re not making money because there’s no show on.
‘I can truthfully say that all the big disasters, both at the Victoria Palace and the teething problems here, are all to do with shit’ – Cameron Mackintosh
On top of that, he had a bruising experience refurbishing the Victoria Palace Theatre before Hamilton moved in at the end of 2017. The initial £35 million cost ballooned to “something like £65 million” as waves of setbacks and problems hit the project.
So what has he learned from the Victoria Palace ordeal? “Never to be surprised when another disaster comes around the corner,” he sighs. “There’s always another disaster. And, so far, I can truthfully say that all the big disasters, both at the VP and the teething problems here, are all to do with shit.”
With the Queen’s, it was finding the space for more toilets, installing them and tackling Victorian plumbing. Mackintosh continues: “With the VP, it was the rebuilding of the toilets, and the fact that the theatre straddles the famous King’s Drain – approved by George III, which I always thought was the perfect irony. That knocked us back three to four months. Then the amount of structural underpinning we had to do cost a fortune, and caused us to break floors we didn’t think we’d ever have to break. It was huge.”
For both the Victoria Palace and the Queen’s, how much were his designs tailored to the fact the he knew two bankable long-runners were going straight in? “Not at all,” Mackintosh says firmly. “We knew this scale of theatre would be unlikely to have as big a show as Les Mis again. It’s also the heaviest show, because of the number of characters and wigs and all of that. It has 350 different parts, so it has an enormous wardrobe. That was the brief that could help us work out how to maximise backstage. But that was the only thing. The auditorium is entirely what I would have done with any show. I was just as punctilious with the Victoria Palace – I planned that long before I knew Hamilton existed.”
As we roam around the Sondheim – up and down stairs, in and out of toilets – Mackintosh greets the legions of people working on it, while firing out a constant stream of instructions or asking for updates on bits of wall, deliveries of doors and toilet-flush sensors. Every area has something being polished off or spruced up, not to mention the buzz of activity on stage as the huge Les Mis crew pull everything together for opening night.
He insists we sit in seats at every level of the theatre to show how comfortable they are, and to show off the sight lines, and he gently upbraids me and my ilk: “Most journalists have never sat in a circle seat, but they write these broad-sweeping articles complaining how uncomfortable the seats are.” He adds emphatically: “My theatres are not uncomfortable.”
When we get to that 1950s foyer, he explains that since much of the once-modern design is now listed, there was only so much he could do. He has concealed some of the uglier, blocky tendencies and blended it with the Edwardian style, so now the experience of walking from front of house through the theatre is like moving backwards in time: a journey, rather than a jolt, as it was before.
“On every element – the ticket prices, the surcharge, the programme – we have been very strict that we are at the bottom of what something decent should cost. We don’t want to get the extra two or three quid just because we could. Zero loading in every department. My mantra has always been: I don’t want people coming to the theatre to have to pay more for a decent glass of wine than they would in Wetherspoons.
“90% of all tickets go at the house price, but I’m not at all ashamed about premium ticket prices, because there are always people who want to buy the most expensive ticket, and that allows me to have a large proportion of seats cheaper. At most of my theatres, for £15 or £20 you can get in and see a good show in a great seat.”
Mackintosh had plans for a Sondheim Theatre already, first between the Gielgud and the Queen’s, where his offices are now, then more recently in an extensive refurbishment of the Ambassador’s. He had agreed a deal with then-owner Stephen Waley-Cohen, subject to planning permission, and had forked out on extensive designs. The plans, however, fell apart when ATG gazumped Mackintosh’s offer for the theatre.
But he didn’t take Sondheim’s name in vain, transferring it to this building. At the time the renovation was announced, Mackintosh revealed why he chose to honour the composer: “As an innovative voice in musical theatre, his influence has no equal. Sondheim’s work will undoubtedly be performed as long as audiences want to see live theatre, so I feel honoured that he has agreed to have his name on one of my Shaftesbury Avenue theatres to salute his upcoming 90th birthday.
“The rebuilt and restored theatre will be a perfect companion to the Gielgud Theatre next door, named after the great actor John Gielgud, and the Coward and Novello Theatres, named after the two celebrated British writers and composers.”
Mackintosh and designer Clare Ferraby, a longtime collaborator, have managed to incorporate some of the earlier designs into the renovation here: the front bar features a wall of carved plaster inspired by Sprague motifs that would have been in the Ambassador’s-Sondheim.
Not only does it accidentally echo Peskett’s column carvings, but it also hides a wall of dark wood that Mackintosh hated, and that wasn’t allowed to be removed. A lot of the front of the building had to stay as it was: the glass frontage remains, as does a particularly ugly, but listed, wooden bar. “We have to embrace the style,” he says grudgingly.
When you move through the space, the 1950s begin to merge with the Edwardian. The carpet starts to signal this: pixellated squares in both the green of the original design and the red of the 1950s remake. A motif of reeds tied with knots of ribbon starts to appear more frequently around the doorways and cornicing. “I noticed the motif in the Gielgud and recreated it here,” Mackintosh says.
Then, once you open the doors to the auditorium – doors that used to be big squares of pale green like knackered baize, but now match the dark wood and gold of other Delfont Mackintosh buildings – the time travel is complete. Not only does the renovation reunite the Sondheim with its past self, it also goes a long way to restoring its twinning with the Gielgud.
The overhangs and ceilings on each tier used to be blank white canvases. Now they have ornate plasterwork, including a recurring cherub design, with finely detailed paintwork in “fifteen colours, and seven shades of gold”.
“We discovered that these cherubs are the symbol of the theatre, so we’ve put them everywhere,” Mackintosh says. Where the old auditorium felt like a shoebox, square and cold, the new one feels warm and intimate. The “tunnel vision” of the old place is gone.
The addition of boxes with curved rails, as well as curved lines along the plasterwork, makes everything seem to lean in towards the auditorium. The stage has been lowered by a foot to add to the feeling of closeness with the audience. “We’ve turned it from a hall into something that hugs you.”
‘We’ve maximised the space, but we’ve also maximised the comfort. It makes a huge difference to morale.’
Some of it restores Sprague’s original design for the Queen’s: two loges have been rebuilt either side of the auditorium, christened Schönberg and Boublil, after the creatives behind Les Misérables. But a lot of it has gathered motifs and techniques of the Sprague style from across Mackintosh’s theatres, and restored a fidelity of spirit. It’s less about slavishly imitating the original, and more about making the theatre cohere with the DMT portfolio and the Gielgud especially.
Since Mackintosh owns the whole block, he’s had freedom to explore the surrounding spaces, too. He found a void space between the Gielgud and the Sondheim, empty from the ground up, which has been filled in with toilets – many more than the Queen’s had before.
He also found out that a huge chunk of space, on every level from the basement to the top of the building, had been an electricity substation leased to the electric board since 1907. After negotiations, he reclaimed it, allowing more space on stage, as well as several levels of new dressing rooms. They now all have showers, and most have windows. Every department gets its own decently sized area – wigs, wardrobe, orchestra – working in conditions that are much airier and capacious than before. “We’ve maximised the space, but we’ve also maximised the comfort. It makes a huge difference to morale.”
I suggest Mackintosh got lucky finding so much extra space. He thinks for a moment: “I have managed to do it in every one of my theatres. There’s always something. What I discovered when I redid the Novello is that there were a lot of separated staircases because of the classes [with different staircases for different ticket prices]. When you knock through, you end up releasing these spaces into extra areas. With the Prince Edward and the Prince of Wales, I was able to excavate under the pavement.”
With £125 million (and counting) of Mackintosh’s money so far spent on his theatres, I want to know what drives him to do it. “Ever since I was at school in Bath, I’ve always been appreciative of architecture,” he says. “I live in a 700-year-old priory. I love old buildings and I love making them relevant for a contemporary age. We’ve now brought all our theatres into the 21st century, and because of that my legacy will be that these theatres will still be here in the 22nd century. I’m leaving everything basically to the public through my foundation, to be run as proper commercial enterprises. It is not going to become the commodity of a hedge fund.”
One phrase he keeps repeating during the tour is “five-star experience”. It’s DMT’s ethos, he says. “We’ve created a standard and now we have to match that standard. It’s five-star customer service, comparable to a five-star hotel, no matter what price you paid for your ticket.” For Mackintosh the splendour of the building should be as much a part of the experience as seeing the show.
As we climb back up the theatre to the DMT offices, he points out one last detail: on one side of the auditorium Stephen Sondheim’s initials are emblazoned on a panel, and facing them, in perpetuity, are the letters CM.
“I’ve earned more money than I ever dreamt of,” he says, returning to the question of why he spends so much on these ailing, uncooperative buildings. “And actually, it’s just a great pleasure for me to know that I’ve had a wonderfully successful and eventful life, and I’m going to leave something tangible, not just faded pictures. I’m going to go to my grave knowing that everyone’s going to have a fucking good time in my theatres.”
“Les Mis wore out the theatre,” he adds, “and one day it will wear out its producer, too.”
W MacQueen-Pope recalls a royal visit: “King George the Fifth, Queen Mary and the Princess Royal came to see ‘The Young Person in Pink’ whilst it was there. I received them and escorted them to the Royal Room behind the Royal Box. The door of the box was slightly open and Queen Mary, glancing in, said: ‘How shall we sit tonight?’ ‘Oh, on chairs as usual,’ replied the King and roared at his own joke – and as loyal subjects, so did we.”
If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive