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A sense of drama

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Sir Cameron Mackintosh has got big development plans, and not just for a £20 million new transfer theatre for the West End, he reveals.

With a name like Mackintosh, it's perhaps not surprising to find that Sir Cameron has a 'passion' for buildings. But it's more of an eye-opener to discover that the famous theatrical producer is now spending far more time with architects on an extraordinarily long list of building projects than with the luvvy set on his many shows.

Cameron Mackintosh (he doesn't use the 'Sir') is a youthful, energetic 56 year old who is becoming the new saviour of theatre fabric in London's West End. His plans include a major refurbishment and renewal programme for the sites soon to come under his ownership, plus a new £20 million venture - to be called the Sondheim theatre and unveiled this week - which will be built straddling the tops of the Queen's and the Gielgud theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue.

This, he explains, will be a new, 500-seat central studio theatre venue for transfer shows - musicals and plays - from the fringe. And because it is connected to the two existing venues, it will enjoy economies of scale, using the same house staff and box office for all three and lifting total capacity to almost 2,600, easily beyond that of the Palladium. Clever.

'Together', he says, 'it is going to be like a commercial version of the National. There should be a terrific buzz in one building housing three completely different kinds of entertainment and massive bars that can cope with all of them'. Why Sondheim?

'Because he's a great friend and somebody I admire hugely, it's one of the great names of the theatre that will live for a long time and a huge amount of his work does get done in these kinds of theatres. And I think Sondheim is a fairly unique name in international theatre - the nature of what you think about him is that it is slightly different from the normal commercial musical.'

But there is much more. Mackintosh wants to revitalise the currently 'tacky' and 'supper club 1950s' Prince of Wales theatre he already owns: 'It's sort of been an unloved auditorium, just drifted on. I feel it's like one of those boats that's been left to rot in a creek which was probably nice in the 1930s but hasn't been nice since'. So it will get a new auditorium, bigger bar, and mesh-clad, copper and gold boxes designed with his architect, the Arts Team at RHWL. The £7 million scheme will have to be finished next April for the opening of Mamma Mia:

Mackintosh's aim is to bring back the ocean liner-like glamour to the place (he remembers sailing on the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth). The exterior will be more in the simple spirit and clean lines of original architect Robert Cromie's 1937 vision: signage will be improved, the tower and flagpole accentuated and an American bar will project out across the street. The aim: to connect people to the theatre and animate the building.

Next there is the Strand, which will get an extended upper bar, repaired stonework facade, altered signage and repainted auditorium. 'It's lost some of the glamour over the years, which I hope to restore.' Refurbishments will be in line with the Shubert in New York, which is fitting. The Shubert dynasty was behind a range of theatres in New York and Sam Shubert had plans for six or seven for London beyond the Strand, which it built to the designs of WGR Sprague. With his characteristic relish for a good story Mackintosh relates, however, how Shubert met an untimely end when a train he was in collided with one carrying dynamite.

Overall, the new-look Strand will boast half as much space again and Mackintosh is considering renaming the venue. 'My theatres are either named after famous theatre owners/producers or the Royal Family, ' he says. 'I'm not sure I'd want to do 'the Harry' or 'the William' at the moment'.

Then there are the Albery and Wyndhams theatres he is getting 'back' (freehold now after having them on a very long lease). He wants to update them too - better bar facilities, again, more contemporary access and a more 'egalitarian' feel. Plus a Mackintosh makeover and expansion for the 1957 Queen's: 'I personally think that this needs a complete major reinvention, of a drastic kind, ' he says, 'It's hideous - even the 20th Century Society don't fight for it and they fight for most things.'

Total cost: around £35 million.

We meet at Stavordale, Mackintosh's magnificent 13th century priory in Somerset.

He's proud of the additions he has made to this pile, set in beautiful countryside and including an indoor swimming pool and gym, follies, water features, and lush gardens.

He's developed four other buildings nearby, some for the workers who serve Mackintosh, his photographer partner Michael, and two dogs Tor (South African ridgeback) and Dodger. But he is also building a family house using locally quarried stone on a promontory opposite the Isle of Skye, with magnificent views from its circular tower across Loch Nevis. Then there's his offices in Bedford Square ('probably Adam's nicest house'), a Nash property in Park Village West, another scheme in Malta overlooking the wonderful bay to Fort St Angelo, while the Rosé wine we drink bears the stamp of his place in Provence. Nice work if you can get it.

Mackintosh was born to a Maltese mother and a Scots jazz-playing father. The family business was timber, in Cuffley, Hertfordshire. Mum Diana is the practical one.

Dad Ian was the creative.

Clearly that musical tradition, coupled with Mackintosh's early brush with Salad Days, informed his desire to become a successful producer of hit musicals. His involvement in the playhouses came via the late Bernie Delfont, who while at First Leisure offered the Prince Edward theatre and Savoy to Mackintosh. The former venue has already had the Mackintosh touch: 'we turned it from being, 'Well, there's always the Prince Edward', to everybody wanting it as their first choice for musicals.'

But beyond the production of Mary Poppins next year - a collaboration with Disney - buildings are taking centre stage in Mackintosh's life 'I don't want to find lots of new shows, because I enjoy doing this, ' he says.

'It's been a passion I've had. I've always loved buildings. I'm lucky that I've got the financial resources to do what I want - they're not cheap to do - but the thing is, I only want to do it for a purpose.'

His other love is cooking, which he shares with brother Nicholas, a chef and restaurant owner. 'But, again, ' Mackintosh points out, 'you can all buy the ingredients: it's how you put it together that really makes a difference.'

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