It’s very rare for a major theatre in London’s West End to come up for sale – and the Theatre Royal Haymarket is generally reckoned to be one of the most beautiful playhouses in the country. After 47 years its occupants have decided it’s time to hand on the gilded baton – although the ultimate owner is actually Her Majesty the Queen.
Arnold Crook laughs at the slightly convoluted family history which brought him into the theatre – a world which previously he had known little about.
“Louis Michaels and his partner Enid Chanelle had bought a lease on the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket. But sadly in 1981 Louis died and as I was then married to Enid’s daughter I suddenly found myself chairman. I suppose I didn’t really know what I was taking on but I jumped in with both feet. I soon realised what a superb building I was in charge of.”
Crook is quick to add that ultimate ownership rests with the Queen. The company acquired a new 99-year lease from the Crown Estate on the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 1987. It’s the last 68 years of this which is now up for sale, along with the company as a going concern.
The authoritative Theatres Trust says the theatre has “one of the most distinguished and brilliantly preserved interiors in London”. It’s a Grade One listed building so changes to it would be allowed only in the most exceptional of circumstances
So why sell?
Crook says the basic reason is simple. “This is the year I become an octogenarian and there comes a time when life moves on. But the years here have been wonderful and I know I shall miss it.”
The current show is The Rat Pack but musical offerings are a comparative rarity. The theatre has a reputation for up-market fare: in the mid-1890s two Oscar Wilde classics started life here. In recent years the works of Samuel Beckett, Sir Terence Rattigan and Sir Tom Stoppard have filled the 890-seat theatre.
Though arguably it’s London’s most elegant auditorium, contemporary plays have also worked well. The next presentation, starring Suranne Jones, is Bryony Lavery’s heavyweight drama Frozen (very definitely not the Disney musical).
The theatre was the work in 1821 of the architect John Nash, who developed large chunks of central London for the Prince Regent. In fact much of the plush blue and gilt interior dates from the early 1900s but Crook has insisted on painstaking maintenance of all parts of the building.
“It’s important you look after the bricks and mortar. But also we look after our performers and make them at home. That’s why we’ve had so many huge stars here.
“Just in my time there’s been Lauren Bacall and Jack Lemmon and Judi Dench and Maggie Smith and so many others. But I’m also proud of the Masterclass scheme which has brought in 100,000 young theatregoers, many of whom had never been in a theatre before.”
Crook won’t be drawn on who’s likely to make an offer. Could it be one of the big groups which already dominate the London theatre? Between them the Ambassador Theatre Group, Delfont Mackintosh, Nimax and Really Useful own or operate the majority of West End houses. One or more might relish owning (for 68 years) the most important commercial theatre to have remained independent.
Other bidders could include a big American group such as Nederlander or Jujamcyn. And Crook says there could be bids from outside the theatre world.
“It might make a wonderful trophy purchase for the right bidder. There is a superb team already in place which means a non-theatre specialist could take over an organisation running smoothly.”
The unique nature of the offer – a lease of less than 70 years on a site which is Crown-controlled and effectively untouchable as a property – makes it hard to estimate how high bids might go. But like anyone selling something valuable Crook will relish the prospect of a bidding war.
So what does he think it will go for? Arnold Crook laughs again.
“The biggest money I can get. And, whoever buys it, I hope they have as much as fun as I did.”