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Andrzej Lukowski: West End should fear Hytner’s expansion drive

Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner. Photo: Helen Maybanks Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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Remember those five minutes or so when Nicholas Hytner ducked out of British theatre? Yeah, me neither. Because now that he’s back – alongside his long-serving executive Nick Starr – it looks like he’s pretty much planning to take over the whole world.

The National Theatre top job has traditionally served as the final act in its holders’ career, usually followed by a long, golden epilogue.

While Hytner and Starr’s decision to open a large new theatre was certainly unusually industrious, my initial impression of the Bridge was that it was a sort of Lyttelton redux, effectively allowing Hytner to carry on doing what he’d been doing before, but with a reduced workload.

Not a bit of it: before last Tuesday’s press preview of Young Marx, the Bridge’s opening show, Hytner met critics and affably revealed that he and Starr were planning on building at least two or three more London theatres based upon the same model in the near future.

Should West End producers be worried about their new rivals? No. They should be absolutely terrified.

The danger to them, I’d say, is less that Hytner has any personal interest in putting them out of business, more that 1) A successful chain will give Hytner a huge amount of power, and 2) the Bridge model shows up half of the West End’s theatre stock as the obsolescent rubbish tips they are.

The Bridge auditorium isn’t particularly lavish, but it is magnificently engineered to cram comfy seats with plentiful legroom – and no obstructed sight lines – into a fraction of the space of any existing theatre of comparable capacity. It really brings home the extent to which Theatreland is founded on venues that simply aren’t very nice or comfortable.

Of course, this may mean very little to audiences who will clearly decide what to see based on the show, not the theatre. But with talk of the Bridge’s potential siblings functioning as receiving houses, why wouldn’t the cast and creatives of a hyped play from the Almeida, or Royal Exchange – or wherever – want to go into the nicer, more intimate space?

And aren’t there inherent economic advantages to fitting 900 seats into a space in which the West End might manage 500?

Some West End theatres are legitimately iconic and have had a lot of money and love put into them: Cameron Mackintosh’s great legacy to London will be the theatres he has pumped millions into, while Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Theatres is doing wonders with Drury Lane. The prosaic, practical Bridge model pioneered by architects Haworth Tompkins isn’t a threat to these places, or those like them.

But the rest – well they need to fix up, look sharp. I don’t think Hytner and Starr wish them any ill will, but if the two Nicks launch a chain of theatres that show up Theatreland’s failings and drain away the zeitgeisty transfers, then who knows what will happen.

I don’t think a single West End theatre has shut its doors for good in the time I’ve been living in London. But I wouldn’t bet against it happening in the next decade, with Nicholas Hytner the smiling assassin.