Editor’s View: Who will buy Theatre Royal Haymarket – and at what price?
The Theatre Royal Haymarket, one of London’s oldest and grandest playhouses, was put up for sale in January.
Since then, there have been rumours about who might land one of the West End’s genuine gems.
An early story that emerged of a crowdfunded campaign to transform the venue into a theatre showcasing female-led work was always a complete red herring. While the group had set its target at £3 million, it was always unlikely to raise that (about £11,000 is currently pledged) and, if it had, it was not going to be enough to buy the building’s lease.
At the beginning of the process, my money would have been on an existing theatre operator to land the venue: Ambassador Theatre Group, Nimax, perhaps Trafalgar Entertainment (the new company set up by Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire post-ATG).
Really Useful Theatres and Delfont Mackintosh seemed less likely – Mackintosh has plans to redevelop the Ambassadors and Really Useful divested itself of its playhouses to Nimax in 2005. But a producer looking for a London base was possible: someone like Bill Kenwright, who has done a lot of work at the Haymarket, would have been a sensible tip, especially as he has recently sold some of his holdings in Everton Football Club.
Early talk put the bidding at about £12 million to £15 million. This sounded a bit uppish to me – but not impossible. The 893-seat theatre is beautiful, but not unproblematic – there are only 67 years on the lease, it’s Grade I-listed, requires refurbishment and its freeholder the Crown Estate has a reputation for being a bit tricky. Plus, recent programming has been patchy – it recorded an operating profit of just £56,000 in 2016/17 (although it was in excess of £430,000 in 2015/16).
However, the latest rumour is that two overseas buyers are keen. The numbers now being spoken of are in excess of £30 million.
If there is any truth in this – and it wouldn’t be the first time that rumours of foreign billionaires buying into the West End have proven to be false – it is absolutely bonkers.
To put it in context: Nimax bought the much larger and more financially viable Palace Theatre for £20 million in 2012.
This is not a price that makes any sense for someone looking to run the Haymarket in commercial theatre terms.
One might be inclined to wish good luck to the current leaseholders in getting the most they can from the sale. But, it is in producers’ and theatregoers’ interests that the Haymarket remains a home for quality theatre, and does not become an oligarch’s trophy asset.