Last month saw the annual Olivier awards; London’s theatre-land celebrating the great and good of the craft. London attracts around 28 million overnight visitors per year, and one third of overseas visitors attended a theatre performance. So what is the appeal of the West End over and above other locations, despite its need for restoration? We’d argue that it is in a large part down to the appearance of the buildings themselves. In the main listed buildings, the West End of London offers not just entertainment but history.
Listed buildings such as these, however, are not easy to maintain. Redecoration is often undertaken when it is restoration that is really required. Years of tight purse strings and neglect have made the requirements to make these buildings both functional and beautiful an almost insurmountable task. Surface decoration is important – a paying audience attends in order to relax and be entertained after all. It’s not all gilt edges and velvet curtains, though.
Re-painting and re-carpeting are undertaken more often than audiences perhaps realise. The footfall and usage of the buildings is considerable, with 14 million audience members passing through the buildings over the course of last year. Appearances in this industry are paramount, and it is only when compared to a theatre in which material investment has been made, like the Savoy or Prince of Wales, that the potential of restorative work becomes clear.
The buildings may be architecturally historical, but look beyond this and you will see a space that must also be a working building. Several hundred members of the public will use the space each day and a considerable body of staff rely on the bricks and mortar to make their living; so the building must be a safe space to occupy. It is for this reason that restoration should not be undertaken with a purely aesthetic focus.
First impressions count; and also no one wants a column to fall on their head. So maintaining the facade of a Victorian or Edwardian listed theatre is crucial. From industrial stone cleaning to paintwork to structural reinforcement, the frontage to theatre venues plays a massive part in maintaining the character of London’s West End. But both the city of London and the entertainment industry are modernising. So historical detail, carefully restored and maintained, needs to co-exist with the hi-tech, and work should be sympathetic to this fact.
It was just three years ago that the ceiling of the Apollo theatre collapsed during a performance, casting the internal repair of London’s theatre-land into the limelight. In addition, the size and disrepair of seating and insufficient toilet space are a constant issue. The internal structures of these buildings present owners with perpetual challenges. So real renovation must consider these challenges and offer solutions.
As with any building with a front and back of house, it is the backstage that loiters at the bottom of any theatre owner’s priority list. Venue staff and performers often exist in cramped spaces with badly maintained windows and doors. It is here that the budget must be used more smartly than anywhere else. In fact, it is arguably this part of the space that benefits most from the casting of a professional decorator’s eye!
London would not exist as the tourist destination that it is without the history and grandeur of its West End theatre houses. Gradually, private owners are beginning to prioritise not just redecoration but serious restoration that is considerate to the requirements of the space. If this approach continues, there is some hope that the streets of central London will continue to reflect the history of the city.