Theatre ownership runs riot

The news that Ambassador Theatre Group, run by Howard Panter and his wife Rosemary Squire, has acquired ownership of Live Nation’s British theatres for £90m is surely a mixed blessing.

In the Times, producer David Pugh declares that power corrupts — and that monopolies tend to dictate mean-minded deals to touring companies — while Benedict Nightingale feebly says that it’s hard to see the acquisition as anything but good news.

But judging by the upkeep in some of its West End theatres, ATG is struggling to maintain a decent service in the theatres it runs at the moment, let alone any future operations.

The Trafalgar Studios is the most uncomfortable auditorium in London, the Duke of York’s is badly run down, the Comedy seriously unwelcoming. And there’s a scandalous one-size-fits-all glass of wine policy at £6.40 a gulp.

The trouble with owning theatres is that each one needs proper care and attention in order to make the outing special to the customer. Box office services are centralised, front of house staff mostly anonymous, bars and loos terrible.

And actually, the idea that Howard and Rosemary have an entirely free hand is a chimera, too. The people who really own the theatres now  are the majority shareholders, Exponent Private Equity, as well as a few property entrepreneurs and — is this a cause for celebration or concern? — the bullish, not notably cultured former director-general of the BBC, Greg Dyke, who is the new executive chairman.

Howard and Rosemary know their theatre, and have their hearts somewhere located in nearly right places, but it is absolutely impossible for them to exercise anything like an independent, flourishing artistic control in these circumstances.

The art of producing plays is the art of attention to detail, long-term commitment to an individual project, fanaticism.

The producing side of ATG depends entirely on the creative concentration of people like Sonia Friedman (who is probably doing far too much to be entirely dedicated to any one project), David Pugh, Kim Posters (who still has a lot to prove) and David Babani, who is as frisky as a puppy but stuck in the past and obsessed with a knackered notion of Broadway.

The Guardian reports that ATG currently spends £3.5m a year on its buildings, a figure that is likely to rise to £8m as it takes on a total of thirty-nine venues around the country and in the West End, where the Apollo Victoria and the Lyceum, the respective homes of Wicked and The Lion King, are the new acquisitions.

It all seems a bit much. If the Cameron Mackintosh group of theatres are the Waitrose of our theatre culture and the Really Useful Group the Sainsbury’s, you can only possibly view ATG as the Tesco’s or Asda of the chain-store monopoly syndrome.

And you remember why Alan Coren liked Tesco’s so much…because it kept the riff raff out of Waitrose. Panter and the Squire need the riff raff to keep the doors revolving. How on earth will they manage the trick of providing great theatre with common denominator qualities?

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