My Favourite Painting: Sir Cameron Mackintosh

'His dextrous manipulation of colours conjures up the intoxicating “smell” of live theatre, creating a world more desirable than ever in this isolated digital age.'

Sir Cameron Mackintosh chooses The Noël Coward Theatre:

‘I met Francis Hamel in 1987 and we became firm friends. In 2007, I asked him if he’d like to paint not only my productions, but also the theatres I was beginning to collect. Only Sickert, Toulouse-Lautrec and Laura Knight had seriously painted the theatre in almost 100 years.

‘This is my favourite. It’s where, as an impoverished 19 year old in 1965, I auditioned to be acting stage manager for Lionel Bart’s Oliver!.

‘I got the job and ended up owning the theatre! Francis has caught the special magic of these extraordinary Edwardian buildings. His dextrous manipulation of colours conjures up the intoxicating “smell” of live theatre, creating a world more desirable than ever in this isolated digital age ’

Sir Cameron Mackintosh is a theatre producer whose Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera and Cats are the longest-running musicals of all time. His Mary Poppins returns to the West End this year.

John McEwen on The Noël Coward Theatre:

Francis Hamel lives at Rousham in Oxfordshire and returns to his studio there when he’s harvested sufficient information ‘to build a painting’. He uses photographs, drawings and his imagination. The drawings are done during the performance and record light, colour and, if at all possible, the atmosphere. They are covered with notes about light and colour.

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Sir Cameron Mackintosh has allowed him more or less unfettered access to his theatres, as long as he hovers in the shadows.

For Mr Hamel, the principal attraction of theatre is its ‘sheer beauty and potency’. He explains: ‘It’s a concentrated version of the real world, with light and colour levels ramped up a few notches. For this painting, having a single figure at the “sweet spot” in the composition was all I wanted. I have planted the proscenium in the centre of the composition, the magic hinge between the real world and the stage, like the cover of a book or the rabbit hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

‘The painting tries to capture the opulence of this handsome auditorium and the bright lights of the stage, with rows of heads lit up by the performance. I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember much about Avenue Q, which I went to at least twice – far too busy with pencils and paper!’

Mr Hamel’s ‘Behind the Curtain’, an exhibition of 30 portraits of famous contemporary figures in film and theatre, is on show at the V&A until May 19. A small retrospective accompanying a new monograph, Francis Hamel: Paintings and Drawings, is at John Martin Gallery, 38, Albemarle Street, London W1, until May 3.

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