Inevitably, in the aftermath of another partial ceiling collapse in a West End theatre, people will want to question the state of our industry’s ageing buildings and how restoration levies are spent.
I was commercial director at Really Useful Theatres (now LW Theatres) when part of the ceiling collapsed at the Nimax-owned Apollo Theatre in 2013. It was a worrying time for all managements across the West End and it raised issues about the sustainability of our theatres that are still yet to be fully addressed.
While it would be wrong to speculate on the causes of this latest incident while facts are still thin on the ground, it serves to highlight the challenges of operating historic buildings for theatre owners.
Much of the theatre stock in which we host world-class productions is now more than 100 years old and protected by stringent planning laws. These make maintenance and refurbishment an extremely costly and difficult undertaking.
Criticism is often levelled at theatre owners for not investing enough in their buildings, while charging restoration levies that increase the cost of already pricey theatre tickets.
But, for theatre owners, operating in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, under restrictive planning regulations and punitive business rates, it is an almost impossible challenge in a commercial world.
While two of our theatre chains, Delfont Mackintosh and LW Theatres, are owned by philanthropic benefactors (Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber) who invest millions of pounds of their own wealth into their theatres, this is a model that is impossible for other commercial theatre owners to match.
While restoration levies generate millions of pounds in revenue, they are only a drop in the ocean of what it costs to maintain these magnificent national treasures. During my time at Really Useful Theatres the amount of money spent on restoration far exceeded the amount we generated in restoration levies.
LW Theatres is currently investing £45 million on a renovation of Theatre Royal Drury Lane. A £1.50 per ticket restoration levy would take 36 years to repay the investment – that is assuming that it played at 100% capacity at every performance for that period. It is commercially unsustainable. The investments that Cameron Mackintosh has made to his theatres are equally unviable for other commercial operators, such as Ambassador Theatre Group, which owns and operates the Piccadilly Theatre.
We are sitting on a time bomb. We are lucky to be living in an age when Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber are in a position to subsidise their passions – but when they are no longer around, who will be prepared to plough millions into our historic theatres without the prospect of a commercial return?
Other buildings of national significance – the Royal Opera House, for example – benefit from generous Arts Council or heritage grants to maintain them. Our magnificent, globally important, West End theatres enjoy no such subsidy. Instead, they have to have to fight for existence in a commercial world with one hand tied behind their backs by restrictive planning and expensive heritage protection regulations.
Faced with these barriers, alongside the challenges of those business rates and the ever-increasing demands of modern productions and audiences, it is a losing battle – unless we can find more people to invest in what frequently amounts to nothing more than a labour of love.
In a world of obviously more important demands on the public purse, it is hard to justify subsidy for commercial theatres, but we should recognise the value this industry adds to the economy – not just the tax returns, the jobs, or the secondary revenues generated for hotels, pubs, restaurants, taxis etc, but also the wider tourism and cultural standing that it brings to the nation – which will be ever more important in a post-Brexit Britain.
So, perhaps there needs to be recognition in the form of business rate relief, or a relaxation of some of the restrictive planning regulations to aid commercial theatre. Perhaps the Theatres Trust should recognise that its attempts to preserve buildings, to hold them in a form of stasis that prevents them from evolving, is in some cases threatening the sustainability of these buildings.
Instead of the inevitable discussion after this latest incident focussing on how restoration levies are spent, we should instead be talking about how we can ensure we have theatres that are not only fit for the modern world, but are also viable and keep on serving our fantastic industry for the next 100 years.
Richard Howle is the director of ticketing for the NEC Group and former commercial director of Really Useful Theatres