Today it has been announced that arguably one of the world’s most architecturally beautiful theatres has been put up for sale.

The Theatre Royal Haymarket sings with history, from the Corinthian pillars of the portico to the gilt decorations and the Louis IV-style backstage and foyer areas. The building has stood in its current position on the Haymarket since 1821, when it was redesigned by John Nash. Formerly, it was known as the Little Theatre in The Hay and was built slightly further north on the same street in 1720, making it the third-oldest London playhouse still in use.

Theatre Royal Haymarket Arnold Crook

Having worked at the Haymarket since 2014, it’s almost impossible to imagine such a theatre of the past, born on to a rough London lane rife with villains, pickpockets and crooks: ‘where racketing carts spewed their hay and where tumblers, stilt-walkers and merchants vied for the attention of the crowds’.

If only the walls could talk – just imagine the stories and secrets locked up in the bricks and mortar over the last 297 years.

The lease for the building is currently held by Louis I Michaels subsidiary, Theatre Royal Haymarket Limited, with the freehold of the theatre owned by the Crown Estate. It is the 68 years remaining on this 99 year lease that is now up for sale.

The theatre being sold is really only half the story here.

The Chairman Steps Down

The theatre being sold is really only half the story here. Mr Arnold Crook; a hybrid of Lord Sugar and The Godfather, yet in possession of ten times more charm than both, is retiring as Chairman of Louis I Michaels Ltd and custodian of one of London’s most beautiful theatres. After 37 years, he leaves behind quite a legacy.

I was apprehensive about first meeting him having been warned that he ‘never holds back, is occasionally blunt and always unique’. This became abundantly clear to me the first time I stepped inside his office.

“Hello? Don’t dither outside the door for God’s sake, come inside, sit down and introduce yourself properly.”

Theatre Royal Haymarket Arnold Crook

Theatre Royal Haymarket, Photo: Peter Dazeley

After leaving school at the age of 14 to begin his working life, Arnold was brought into the building courtesy of a somewhat complicated family history, knowing very little about the industry and having already forged a relatively fruitful career in textiles. Earlier today he told the BBC;

“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 and soon realised what a superb building I was in charge of.”

In 1994, he oversaw a £1.3 million restoration of the theatre to its former historical splendour, consuming more than 1,200 ‘books’ of 24 carat English gold leaf. Although, it has to be said, this hasn’t solved the problems afflicting many of the ageing West End playhouses. Yes, there’s not much leg room, yes, there will be long queues for the small number of toilets and yes, the foyers are small, cramped and don’t encourage much chance to socialise, but these are the burdens inherited by a grade I listed building which is bound up by strict conditions of historical preservation.

I have seen the Haymarket more than challenge any preconceptions of stuffy grandeur

However, I have seen the Haymarket more than challenge any preconceptions of stuffy grandeur through their Masterclass programme, which throws open the doors to the Georgian building and feverishly ignites a dormant atmosphere with hundreds of young, 21st century voices.

Masterclass’ 2017 production of Cookies. Photo: Pamela Raith

Motivated by a desire to create new opportunities for young people in the world of theatre, Arnold established the Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass Trust in 1998. This educational arm of the theatre has since become one of the most prolific West End charities for young people, reaching out to over 80,000 young lives in 20 years.  The Chairman’s wish for young people to experience all areas of theatre and a world that many may never have entered or considered in a professional capacity was paramount to him.

Realising the shortage of skilled technical workers and backstage talent throughout the industry, in 2003 Arnold hosted the first ever TheatreCraft at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and welcomed experts from across the industry, specialising in make-up, lighting, sound, marketing, PR and more in order to inspire a new generation of theatre makers. Now, the biggest non-performance careers event in London is run in partnership with the Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass Trust, the Society of London Theatre, the Royal Opera House, and Mousetrap Theatre Projects. It has been hosted at the Waldorf Hilton Hotel for the past two years and remains completely free to attend – a place for young people to explore careers that are off-stage in theatre.

TheatreCraft Marketplace in 2017. Photo: Rory Ohlmeier

By placing other people and future generations as the driving force behind his plans, Arnold has, and always will, give something very special back to the community. His spirited nature, charming personality and warm heart are traits which cannot be taught; these are traits an individual must discover and foster themselves.

“As custodian of the Theatre Royal Haymarket since 1981, it has been my life’s pride… it is now time to hand over the reins to the next generation of dream-makers.”