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Exclusive: New plans to breathe life into Westminster Theatre

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The long-running saga over the redevelopment of London’s Westminster Theatre is on the verge of a breakthrough, with a crucial meeting being held next week to decide on proposals for a new ‘Menier Chocolate Factory-style’ theatre that could open on site as early as next year.

A planning application has been submitted to the City of Westminster Council that would see a new residential development on the off-West End site include two performance spaces – a 350-seat main theatre and a secondary studio with room for around 260 standing, which would be used for jazz and world music gigs, as well as cabaret.

These would be run by theatre company London Aloft in conjunction with a 100-cover restaurant, the income from which would be used to help subsidise the venue’s artistic programme. The proposals mirror the highly successful business model of Southwark’s Menier Chocolate Factory, another theatre with a restaurant and one of London’s only full-time producing venues able to run without government subsidy.

It is understood that while the designs for the theatre spaces, which have been created by leading theatre architect Tim Foster, are not contentious, the property developer in charge of the overall scheme, Yolanda Ltd, is looking to increase the amount of space available for flats in the upper storeys of the building. This could be a potential stumbling block.

The Theatres Trust, though, has offered its full support for the scheme. It has urged the council to grant planning permission, saying that the proposal “includes a much improved new theatre, both internally and externally, compared to the previous applications for the site” adding that, “once established, the new Westminster Theatre should become a very attractive and popular venue for London Aloft and other theatre companies”.

London Aloft is led by chief executive Stephen Mitchelson, with Gregory Thompson, formerly of Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, lined up as artistic director. Steven Berkoff will be involved with the venue as its patron.

Mitchelson told The Stage: “We are excited, but we can’t comment until after the meeting on May 14.”

The plans will go before Westminster council for planning permission on May 14. If they are approved, it will mark the end to a prolonged and difficult rebirth for the Westminster Theatre.

Following a fire in 2002, it was demolished by its owner with the intention of turning the majority of the site into flats. However, a planning constraint meant that any redevelopment would have to include a replacement theatre, which had originally been due to be run by black theatre company Talawa.

But plans to create the UK’s first black-led theatre collapsed in 2005 when Arts Council England removed £4 million of capital funding for the project because of internal problems at Talawa. Since then, the proposals to relaunch the theatre have been in limbo.

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