Cameron Mackintosh to transform West End theatre into ‘home for regional transfers’

The Ambassadors Theatre is to be redeveloped as a new kind of venue to give regional shows extra life
The Ambassadors Theatre is to be redeveloped
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Cameron Mackintosh has unveiled his vision for the West End’s new Sondheim Theatre, which he intends turn into a home for shows from subsidised venues around the UK that would “otherwise vanish”.

It will host productions for runs of between eight and 16 weeks, and is being created to give shows from venues such as the Donmar, the National Theatre’s Dorfman, and studio spaces at Sheffield Theatres and Leicester’s Curve a future life.

The new West End venue will be created by redeveloping the Ambassadors Theatre, which Mackintosh announced he was buying last year, into a flexible performance space with around 450 to 475 seats. In addition, the building will have a new floor built above the auditorium that will house a rehearsal space in the heart of the West End for larger shows.

It will also include a redeveloped foyer, new dressing rooms and a cabaret space, which will be created in the basement bar. This space will be called the Sprague Room after the theatre’s architect, William Sprague. The theatre’s current ceiling will be dismantled and repositioned in the Sprague Room as part of the redevelopment.

Nick Allott, managing director at Cameron Mackintosh Ltd, said: “The theatre offers something that the West End has never had before, which is a transfer house for non-proscenium work that originated in the subsidised sector. It also offers an opportunity for some of the exciting work in the regions to get a showcase.”

Planning applications are expected to be submitted later this year, with the theatre planned to open in 2017.

The history

Cameron Mackintosh has spent the past 20 years looking for a venue in the West End that could realise his ambition to create a West End venue that can host shows from non-proscenium arch spaces that originate in the subsidised sector.

It has emerged that Mackintosh previously considered spaces including the former Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, the London Hippodrome, the Duchess Theatre, and more recently, the former Bow Street Magistrates' Court.

However, last year he announced plans to buy the Ambassadors Theatre, which he now intends to redevelop to create the Sondheim Theatre. In plans seen by The Stage, he labels it a venue for “innovative productions” that would “otherwise vanish following their originating theatres”.

Plans for the performance space

In his plans, Mackintosh highlights how there has been, in the past 50 years, a “rapid rise of productions using thrust and open stage formats”. The fact there has not been a theatre created in the West End that can accommodate these types of shows has been described as a “major lost opportunity” by Mackintosh and his team. The plan for the Sondheim Theatre is to create London’s first purpose-built transfer theatre for these kinds of shows. Allott explained that the space would be flexible, with around 450 seats, to provide a home for shows to audiences with more esoteric tastes. He cites the musical London Road, which originated at the National Theatre, as a perfect example of the kind of show that would work at the Sondheim Theatre. Shows will have a minimum eight-week run, running for no longer than 16 weeks, allowing for around four or five shows a year. Most of these will be programmed a year or more in advance, but there will always be one slot left available for that “surprise” show that comes along and needs a London space. Allott said tickets would be “normal West End prices” to reflect the fact audiences are getting a brand new space, with “fantastic bars and first-rate work”. This, he added, means performers will be well paid for their work. Mackintosh will not co-produce any of the work, with Allott explaining: “Our contribution to the production will be the saving producers will make by not having to redesign a show for a space in London.”

The design

The design for the new venue is led by Julian Middleton, from Aedas Arts Team, which was responsible for the Donmar Warehouse and has worked on other Delfont Mackintosh theatres. Interior design is by Katy Marks, from Citizens Design Bureau, who was behind the interior of the Liverpool Everyman. The interior design proposals will draw from “the ingenuity and elegance of the theatre’s architect, WGR Sprague”. The overall approach will be to evoke the ethos of his designs, “rather than recreate the original theatre in pastiche form”. Details from the existing theatre will be incorporated into the new designs.

Architects' plans for the new Sondheim Theatre
Architects' plans for the new Sondheim Theatre

The new rehearsal spaces

Rehearsal space will be created, which Allott said would comprise two rooms, featuring sprung floors and air conditioning. Allott said most productions rely on rehearsal spaces such as Three Mills or Sadler’s Wells, which can get booked more than a year in advance. “It will be a bespoke rehearsal space,” he said, adding: “We are all expert at going to Three Mills now, but it takes a chunk out of your day. I imagine we will have a queue a mile long for the rehearsal space, as you can never have too many rehearsal rooms.” He added that it was being designed for the rehearsal of large productions “not two handers”.

Backstage and front-of-house facilities

In addition to the new performance space, there will be improved backstage facilities, including new dressing rooms. The foyer will also be redeveloped and enlarged.

External redevelopment

WGR Sprague’s theatres appear in pairs, and Mackintosh sees the redevelopment as an opportunity to remodel the Ambassadors to create a pair with St Martin’s Theatre. With the new rehearsal space built on top, the Sondheim Theatre will match St Martin’s Theatre in height. Mackintosh plans to refurbish the existing West Street facade, and improve access to make it easier for shows to get in and out. Mackintosh also plans to improve the landscape around the venue. The theatre is grade II-listed but Allott said that alterations can be made by being “ingenious with the way you do it”. He also said that heritage bodies would be likely to approve changes to theatres, as they understand the need for venues to adapt to meet audiences' tastes and to prevent them from becoming “museums”.

The Sprague Room

Taking its name from the architect of the original Ambassadors Theatre, this new cabaret space will be in the basement of the theatre. This will feature the ceiling from the theatre itself, which will be dismantled piece by piece and reassembled.

The name

Allott explained that Sondheim is a “terrific supporter of this type of theatre” and added that, when he comes to the UK, he sees as much theatre as he can, including the recent production of Sweeney Todd in a pie shop in Tooting. “Cameron has felt for a long time that, considering Sondheim’s work is done globally and so much of it is done here, that the theatre should not be a musical house, but one that reflects his own more esoteric tastes,” Allott said.

The cost

Allott would not reveal the cost of the project. However, he said: “It’s a lot of money.”

What the industry thinks

Arts Council England chair Peter Bazalgette: “The respected reputation of Cameron Mackintosh and his track record of investing millions of pounds in developing spaces in London is clearly well established and I am confident, if he is able to realise these plans, the space will flourish.”

National Theatre director Rufus Norris: “The lack of a flexible, small-scale theatre in central London is something that continues to limit the NT… a venue like the proposed Sondheim could have provided a home for at least six of our productions.”

Almeida Theatre artistic director Rupert Goold: “The redevelopment of the Ambassadors Theatre into the Sondheim Theatre would be an important venue in the West End to provide subsidised theatres such as the Almeida with a home away from home."

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