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It’s curtain up on refurbishment plans for historic Covent Garden theatre

Sir Cameron Mackintosh wants to create new theatre space named after Stephen Sondheim

04 December, 2016 — By Dan Carrier

An illustration of how the refurbished Ambassadors theatre in Covent Garden could look

GRADE II-listed theatre designed by one of the nation’s most celebrated theatre architects could have its historic interior stripped out and rebuilt to make it fit for the 21st century.

The Ambassadors, in West Street, Covent Garden, was built by William Sprague in 1913 and has hosted famous long-running shows such as The Mousetrap and Stomp.

But it is one of the smallest designed by Sprague and changes in production needs and audience expectations mean its owner, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, does not believe it is fit for purpose any longer.

New designs, unveiled this week, would see the historic façade of the theatre retained and many elements of the Edwardian plasterwork carefully taken down, stored and then refitted in a new performance space.

Sprague’s interior, listed in 1973, was celebrated for its Louis XVI style with ambassadorial crests and a colour scheme of Parma violet, ivory and gold.

The new theatre, which will be called the Sondheim, after composer Stephen Sondheim, would hold 450 seats – adding around 100 extra places – and include rehearsal spaces. Other elements include new toilets, a bar and reception facilities – something the current Ambassadors lack to modern standards.

Some of Sprague’s most eye-catching interior designs – including a domed roof – will be taken down and re-used in the new theatre, with the roof being transferred to a new basement cabaret bar and performance space.

Greg Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, said: “It seems to me an excellent and sensitive design, respectful to the original, Sprague theatre but creating a much-needed new space for London theatre.

“If a theatre like the Sondheim were available there would be a real opportunity for important work to be seen in the capital. Our relationship with our regional theatre partners would suggest that providing them with a platform in the capital could be a huge help in promoting their work more widely.

“All in all, a thumbs up from us. It’s a vital and exciting project and one with a potentially far- reaching impact for the cultural economy of the country as a whole – not just for the capital.”

In their planning application to Camden Council, Ambassadors owner DMT Ltd stated: “It is accepted that the existing theatre is flawed and does not meet many of the standards required for a modern performance space.

The development will provide space for productions to transfer from the subsidised sector for an extended period that would otherwise not have that opportunity. The continued use of the building as a theatre space is accepted and encouraged by stakeholders.” They added it would “generate significant public benefits”.

The application is supported by The Theatres Trust, who state its current design means its long-term viability as a theatre is at stake.

They said: “While the difficult decision needs to be made in terms of the theatre’s historic fabric, the theatre does need to be in a position where it can attract the types of shows and audiences needed to sustain it.”

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