The decision secures the future of the Theatre Royal, closed since 2016, but it leaves the city in likely need of a larger scale 1500 seat theatre within the next five years.
Trafalgar outbid experienced theatre producers and owners who had championed an expansion of the Theatre Royal from 1100 to 1500 seats.
Among those to express an interest was fellow Brit, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, as well as Steven Found’s company Foundation Theatres, which operates the Lyric and Capitol – Sydney’s only theatres capable of housing the biggest Broadway musicals – and Michael Cassel who produced the recent tours of Les Miserables and Kinky Boots and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in Melbourne.
Extensive renovations to the theatre’s public areas, seating and amenities, as well as backstage, will begin in December or January, keeping to the theatre’s existing seating capacity, Sir Panter said.
At 1100 seats the Theatre Royal was the “perfect size”, he said, to preserve audience intimacy to the stage and to ensure the theatre was in active year-round use.
“We are working on a number of city centres or downtowns in different countries, Vienna, Docklands here in the UK, Seoul in South Korea and city centres are evolving,” Sir Panter said.
“I think the best of them will have to have a lively rich mix of uses day and night. What I think will be a pioneering partnership with NSW Government will help to reinvigorate the city’s night-time economy; it will provide new jobs and it will make it a place to live, work and visit.”
Sir Panter said he wanted to utilise Australia’s acting talent which was among “the best in the world” and to mount new Australian theatre productions.
NSW tourism minister Stuart Ayres welcomed Trafalgar’s commitment to a “Sydney first strategy” with all its Australian theatrical premieres directed through the city.
This would effectively put Sydney in “poll position” to attract more opening nights and first-run productions at the Theatre Royal and across the city’s other theatres.
The tender process was extremely competitive and Trafalgar’s strong bid reflected the firm’s determination to enter the Australian and Sydney entertainment market, the minister said.
Sir Panter declined to discuss the multi-million dollar agreement but the successful operator was asked to cover the theatre’s internal refurbishment, some external works, annual lease and outgoings including council rates.
Through the Trafalgar Entertainment Group and his stake in Ambassador Theatre Group, Sir Panter has interests in historic theatres, cinemas, conference spaces, and live music arenas in Berlin, New York, and London and has pioneered “cinema clubs” in London boroughs, a boutique concept he is keen to introduce to Australia.
Sir Panter’s stable of shows and classic musicals from London include The King and I, The Rocky Horror Show, War Horse, and the acclaimed Day in the Death of Joe Egg.
Mr Ayres said the NSW Government would reassess the city’s theatre capacity and the enthusiasm of investors in the “post-COVID-19 world” once the doors of the Theatre Royal had opened.
The NSW Government now has to decide if it should include a lyric theatre in the Ultimo redevelopment of the Powerhouse Museum, believed to be one option in the new business case.
Linda Morris is an arts and books writer at The Sydney Morning Herald