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Whole Lotto buildin’ going on in West End

LONDON – If you have a favorite London theater, pay it a visit fast, as the same playhouse may be under scaffolding – or nonexistent – the next time you pass by.

Aided mostly by funds from Britain’s 26-month-old National Lottery, London is preparing a virtually wholesale theatrical face-lift that should deliver a different set of buildings to theatergoers by the year 2000. And not just Shakespeare’s Globe, itself the recipient of nearly $20 million from the Lottery.

“This is the most important means of cultural regeneration this country has ever seen,” Royal Court artistic director Stephen Daldry said of the lottery. Attracting an estimated 30 million players a week, the Lottery contributes 28% of the millions of pounds that pour in each week to arts, sports and capital-funding projects.

The Royal Court’s crumbling Chelsea venue is one such recipient. The theater was granted £15.8 million ($26.2 million) toward a $36.5 million revamp that should find a largely rebuilt Victorian playhouse dominating Sloane Square by autumn 1998. While the builders move in, the prolific Court’s slate of productions has moved out – to two West End venues, the Duke of York’s and the Ambassadors, which the theater has rented on a four-wall deal until it returns home.

The Royal Court has been among the more public London makeovers, largely thanks to a BBC docu in November in which building works seemed less newsworthy than a glimpse of the steeliness behind Daldry’s vaunted charm.

In a far costlier league is the Royal Opera House redevelopment scheme, with a $355 million pricetag, the sum jump-started by a Lottery grant of $91.3 million in July 1995, which predictably sent the tabloid press into a tailspin: “It’s the Greedy Beggars’ Opera,” scoffed the mass-circulation Sun.

Far smaller sums look set to abet the transformation of theaterland. Islington’s historic Sadler’s Wells Theater – home to what eventually became the Royal Ballet and the English National Opera – is being rebuilt from scratch to the tune of $63.5 million, 75% of which is being met by the Lottery; a new theater and education center will open in fall 1998. A temporary home has been found at the Peacock Theater (once the Royalty), whose leaseholder, the London School of Economics, is applying for its own $9.1 million in Lottery funds for refurbishment.

The Royal National Theater is preparing $66.4 million of repairs – 75% provided by the Lottery, 25% from private funding – with the understanding that none of the RNT’s three auditoriums will need to close.

“We’ve been driven by expediency for years and years,” RNT artistic chief Richard Eyre says. “There was the real possibility we’d get closed down by the licensing authorities because we’re a danger.” Expect an array of improvements – from new carpets and air conditioning to stage equipment and seating.

Elsewhere, north London’s Hampstead Theater hopes to be in a new $23.2 million home by 2000, the exact site to be determined; a shift from a one- to a two-venue complex remains an option. Out in West London, the Lyric Hammersmith is planning improvements to the building’s public spaces and backstage areas.

Funds limited

“This is an extraordinary moment,” said Lyric chief exec Sue Storr, referring to the Lottery-prompted access to funds. But she warned that publicity surrounding grants can be misleading, especially when money for redevelopment fails to allow extra cash simply to continue.

“There’s no money available in the maintenance budget to paint the foyer,” recalled Storr, “so four of us came in on a Sunday and did it ourselves. It’s odd: The general public sees us rolling in cash, whereas actually it can be about four people rolling up their sleeves and getting on with it.”

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