Cameron Mackintosh’s greatest legacy may not, ultimately, be the many composers he has championed but instead perhaps the West End theatres he has lovingly restored to their former glories.
At one stage, it appeared the Ambassadors Theatre would feature within that portfolio. Its planned sale to Mackintosh was first reported more than four years ago and was based on him securing the necessary planning permissions, which he did earlier this year.
Some reports presented the theatre’s purchase as being a done deal, with Mackintosh even going so far as announcing the theatre’s name change to the Sondheim.
Suddenly, a couple of weeks ago, the sale was off with current owner, Stephen Waley-Cohen, saying he was getting better offers from other interested parties.
Given that Stomp! had been the Ambassadors’ long-running tenant at 10 years, it had been some time since I’d last visited the theatre. But with Stomp! ending its run last January, I returned in the summer to see David Haig’s enjoyable new play, Pressure.
I must admit I was surprised at the general condition of the theatre. It felt like visiting a house whose inhabitants know they are moving so put no money into it beyond basic upkeep.
‘The Royal Court embraced its ageing fixtures and fittings to deliberately create a distressed feel’
Stomp! was a popular tourist ticket but its audiences were often transient, infrequent theatregoers. This can sometimes afford theatre owners another reason to spend less on building maintenance, in contrast to a theatre that has a steady stream of high-profile performance runs attracting regular seasoned, and premium ticket-buying, theatregoers.
Visiting the Ambassadors again had me thinking back to 1996 when the Royal Court staged work for three years there while its own space was refurbished. During its residency, the Court divided the Ambassadors to create two contrasting performance spaces. For me, it remains one of the most exciting periods for contemporary drama in the West End over the past 20 years.
Crucially, it also brought mainstream attention to new writers through groundbreaking premieres such as: Conor McPherson’s The Weir; Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life; Richard Bean’s Toast; Sarah Kane’s Crave; Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking, and Roy William’s Lift Off.
Even then the Ambassadors felt in need of a lick of paint. However, the Royal Court embraced its ageing fixtures and fittings to deliberately create a distressed feel to the theatre. The result was an environment and atmosphere in which these plays flourished. It also highlighted that if a theatre gains a reputation for great programming, audiences will come regardless of comfort.
Take the old Bush Theatre, above a pub in Shepherd’s Bush Green, as a case in point. For years, this was arguably one of the UK’s most uncomfortable theatres – where people literally sat on steps upon each other’s feet – but audiences would consistently attend because of the quality of its work.
This should not, however, be held up as an excuse for a theatre owner to cut corners in maintenance and audience comfort. And, the Ambassadors may struggle to find another buyer who is as committed, or as prosperous, as Mackintosh – to give this venue the complete overhaul it needs.
If another potential buyer is willing to pay more, but cannot then afford a refurbishment, it should instead consider embracing the existing aesthetic of its building in future programming.
A run-down West End theatre could allow exciting and risky works in an interesting environment and afford opportunities for audience development if ticket prices are set at the right level.
‘Perhaps he should return to the idea of building a smaller performance space’
The recent Donmar Warehouse production of St Nicholas, Sweeney Todd at Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop in Tooting, the Almeida’s deconstructed Wild Duck or a revival of its hit play Mr Burns would all be terrific tenants at the Ambassadors with its existing interior adding to the atmosphere of these productions.
Taking this concept further, encouraging a company such as Punchdrunk to come and create something within such a theatre space could make a unique, thrilling, bold and progressive addition to the West End’s theatre landscape.
Getting the 444-seat Ambassadors Theatre back as a playhouse is valuable for the West End, and could potentially help to grow more new work there.
Theatre owners have realised the considerable value of these smaller performance spaces. Their auditorium size provides a better stepping-stone between an Off-West End or regional transfer than forcing a move into a much larger West End venue.
Nimax is already building a smaller theatre on Tottenham Court Road, while Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Other Palace has seen several West End transfers. Some years earlier, Mackintosh considered building a smaller theatre on the roof of the Queen’s Theatre, but eventually dropped the plan.
The Ambassadors Theatre fulfilled his requirements, but as the sale has collapsed, perhaps he should return to the idea of building a smaller performance space.
One site to consider could be the former Odeon cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue that’s currently under redevelopment. Originally, this was the Saville Theatre where, in 1969, Mackintosh presented his first West End musical Anything Goes. It was a flop, running only 15 performances. However, as a site for a cutting-edge new theatre, it has a fitting legacy and would be a great addition to the West End. Returning would ensure his legacy at the venue would last longer than half a month.