Arts: Where angels fear to tread

As the West End faces a slow death from a diet of rock shows and revivals, Georgina Brown meets four young producers whose commitment to new writing might yet deliver the kiss of life
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The Independent Culture
Back in the Sixties, a bold young producer named Michael Codron changed the face of the West End with his adventurous promotion of new playwrights. His first make-or-break venture brought to London in 1957 a Cambridge University revue, unpromisingly entitled Share My Lettuce, written by someone called Bamber Gascoigne and starring two unknown actors, Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams. The following year, he premiered John Mortimer's first plays - with some success - and Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, which ran for a week. Undeterred, Codron kept faith with Pinter and in 1960 produced The Caretaker, which transferred to the Arts Theatre in the West End and earned its rightful place in history.

While it took him until 1966 to get into the black, over the next decade Codron was responsible for kicking off the careers of Alan Ayckbourn, James Saunders, Charles Wood, Joe Orton and Simon Gray, as well as for transferring David Mercer and Christopher Hampton from the fringe and the subsidised sector to the commercial West End. The alliances between creators and investors forged at the time have remained in force, to the mutual benefit of all parties (Codron is not the only one who is fabulously wealthy).

Codron had the vision to recognise something new, to be ahead of the game and to dictate the taste of the future. The Codron of 30 years ago would have relished the opportunity of harnessing the energy of a new generation of writers who have just burst on to the scene. Young (not yet out of their twenties) and angry, the likes of Joe Penhall (Some Voices, Pale Horse), Sarah Kane (Blasted), Jez Butterworth (Mojo), Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) and David Eldridge (Serving It Up) are being encouraged and developed by the Royal Court, the Bush and the National Studio, and critics are responding with terrific enthusiasm. But without the guiding hand of a commercial producer with the courage and the financial nous of a Codron,these new voices will stay whispering on the fringe or find themselves re-tuned for television. Without fresh blood, the West End will become a ghastly theatrical theme park in which the main attractions are staid revivals, tributes to dead rock stars and coach-party thrillers. It could happen.

The West End does not, of course, need a Codron; it does very nicely, thank you very much, without cutting-edge drama. There is life of sorts in the old dog, a life dictated by the dominant players and sometime gentlemen. For as long as Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber are calling the tune, there will be new spectacular, blockbuster musicals. For as long as the autocratic, shadowy (some might say shady) Bill Kenwright keeps his conveyor belt running (currently with 18 simultaneous shows, including Company, Blood Brothers, An Ideal Husband and Passion), there will be reheated crowd-pleasers. Thelma Holt, a female impresario (that rarest of creatures), will add some exoticism (Ninagawa's Tempest) and some Shakespeare (she brought Matthew Warchus's production of Much Ado to Shaftesbury Avenue). The wily Duncan Weldon will continue to expertly package starry confections. And the impeccably well-connected Robert Fox (he is Edward and James's little brother) will add a little tone (he put Maggie Smith into Three Tall Women).

The West End of the Nineties, however, is a very different place from the West End of Michael Codron's Sixties. The stakes are higher - it would be commercially crazy to put a new play, untried elsewhere, by an unknown writer, straight into the West End. Audiences are older, greyer, fewer and less open-minded: they prefer safe material delivered by people they know.

Nevertheless, something is happening in theatre beyond Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road and the Strand. But these streets will never light up with the names of exciting new writers unless a bold new generation of producers comes along to take them there. And sparks are showing: alongside the renaissance of playwrighting, brave producers are emerging, determined to create new audiences. If the people profiled on this page can break through, there may yet be a new dawn in the West End.

PETER HOLMES a COURT

Silver spoons don't come bigger or jammier than the one Australian Peter Holmes a Court was born with (he's one of five major shareholders in the multi-million-pound Holmes a Court empire, which owns Stoll Moss and its 11 West End theatres) and producers are rarely so ideally educated (he has a US economics degree and a UK law degree). Yet Holmes a Court is outraged at the idea that all he has to do to put on a show is write out a few fat cheques. He runs a hard-nosed business that must do a great deal more than just break even, and he takes no favours. Indeed, he toured 10 UK cities with Tap Dogs, the testosterone-on-legs show in which six hunky guys sweat it out tap-dancing on metal, before putting the pounds 500,000 product into a Stoll Moss theatre.

It was while working as an investment banker in the States that this sometime performer (with a few Edinburgh Festival dates to his credit) first got involved in producing. The $500,000 off-Broadway show was ultimately a flop, but was enough fun for Holmes a Court to junk the banking and set up Back Row Productions. Based in New York, it has several productions (seven of which are Tap Dogs) running in three markets - here, Australia and America. In three years, it has achieved a pounds 4m turnover and Holmes a Court has clear ambitions to take over the theatre-producing world.

"I love the mix of negotiation, finance-raising and some deal of artistic control that you get as a producer. We want to put on shows that we think people will like and therefore will be commercially successful - it's usually what we like, too, but our criterion is commercial viability. We happen to be into fringey, frightening, dangerous and cutting-edge stuff by the standards of the commercial sphere. Tap Dogs is all those things. It's tap-dancing, but has nothing to do with top-hat-and-tails and everything to with industry and metal. It has good reasons for being on the stage and it appeals to a young and to a traditional audience. I'm not the most cultured guy you'd meet across a pine table, but I've a good feeling for the things that can be transplanted from Australia and work somewhere else perhaps even better."

Future plans include Ninagali, a show about an Aboriginal woman which was a hit at the Sydney Opera House and comes to the UK later this year, and Mosh, a new project being developed from a lyrical rant set against the backdrop of a dance-party, written and composed by ex-Doug Anthony All Star, Paul McDermott.

GUY CHAPMAN

When Ireland went wild about Brothers of the Brush, Jimmy Murphy's award- winning tragicomedy about three down-at-heel Dublin decorators, Guy Chapman was there in the audience. A devotee of Irish writing, he, William Butler Sloss and the Soho Theatre Company raised pounds 55,000 to bring the show into London's Arts Theatre for 12 weeks.

"Like Codron, I'm interested in getting a good script on," he says. "I suppose I'm a purist and a slight elitist, in that I believe in the value of art for social purposes. I'd much rather tour something I believe in around studio theatres than put Agatha Christie into the West End just for the sake of it."

A good producer, he says, must be able to "persuade people of the calibre of Lynne Parker [director of Brothers of the Brush] to come and work with people she's never heard of and then make it happen; you've also got to develop the confidence of agents like Mel Kenyon so that they feed you the work as soon as it comes into them. A bad producer is someone doing a conveyor belt of productions to have cash flow or just to make money." He is canny enough, though, to have made money already out of his judgement. As an angel, he made "a lot" on Serious Money, "packets" on Death and the Maiden, "some" on Oleanna. On other shows, he lost plenty.

It was at university that Chapman discovered a talent for getting reluctant fellow students into new work "that excited me but that they wouldn't normally have chosen to see". Marketing became his thing, first for the Society of London Theatres, then for the Royal Court - where he began a little light impresario work, staging Katie Mitchell's Live Like Pigs at the Theatre Upstairs - and finally as an independent consultant and producer. He took Phyllis Nagy's Disappeared on tour. He has Tim Luscombe writing a script for him and his next project is Road Movie, an award- winning gay play by Godfrey Hamilton, which will tour before playing the Lyric Studio.

WILLIAM BUTLER SLOSS

William Butler Sloss's first job (having been asked to leave Eton before the ink was dry on his A-level papers) was tearing tickets for 42nd Street at the Theatre Royal. He got sick of it pretty fast, and trotted in to the executive producer's office to ask for a proper job. Appointed "gofer" to Mark Bramble (book-writer of 42nd Street and Barnum), the boy-secretary soon found himself on Broadway as executive producer of a pounds 30,000 workshop of Notredame. "There is a lot to be said for working for millionaires," he jokes. "You are given nice Christmas presents and get to eat in great places. I reckoned it was a lifestyle I could enjoy - but you can no more plan that than plan to get rich on the horses."

When he returned to the UK to learn the "meat and potatoes" side of producing, he went through Who's Who and wrote to "everyone who sounded rich" to raise pounds 8,000 to take some shows to the Edinburgh Festival. "It was an outrageous contravention of the Financial Services Act, but I met some very nice people and some gave me money." One of those shows, A Drop of Fred, won awards and made money; another was "the best-kept secret in Edinburgh".

His next project, Jonathan Lewis's Our Boys at the Cockpit, gleaned more awards and "nearly" broke even; Paddywhack, by Daniel Magee, won prizes and is currently touring the States, where he is confident it will bring home the bacon. "I'm in this business because story-telling turns me on. I don't want to do Saga theatre; I'd rather entertain my peers than my parents - although I'm happy for anyone to buy a ticket - and I don't want to be on that bleating circuit trying to raise money for something that isn't worth it. As David Merrick said, if you've got a turkey, you can't give it away. I've no pretentious aspirations to high art - I want to be known for quality plays which are worth their ticket price." And, on the basis of Brothers of the Brush, he's well on the way.

ANNABEL LORD

As an agent for everyone theatrical except actors, Lord has talent walking through her door each day, putting her in an ideal position for matchmaking. Her company, Atlantic Overtures (under the aegis and with the financial cushioning of the agency MLR), puts together writers, musicians, composers, choreographers and directors, creates an environment in which they can experiment (ie pays them enough to keep body and soul together), then showcases the work-in-progress to attract the backing of established production companies.

Her most recent project teamed Tony Rees (winner of The Quest for New Musicals), Gary Young (book and lyric-writer) and Stephen Rayne (a director who has worked at the RSC, with Trevor Nunn and at Glyndebourne) with the singer Dave Willetts. They came up with Jekyll, the musical. Backed by Apollo Leisure and the Theatre of Comedy, with Lord as executive producer, the show opened this week at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley. "It will be an enormous success," she says, with awesome confidence. She firmly believes that star quality can all but guarantee success.

While Lord naturally gravitates toward the type of theatre produced at Hampstead, the Bush or the Donmar (the show she would most like to have produced is Sondheim's Company), her passion is for musical theatre, for which she is determined to foster a new form and a new audience. "People of between 15 and 35 perceive musical theatre as lightweight, frivolous, escapist," she says. "It doesn't need to be. I believe we can take the balls, energy and commitment of this current wave of what is generally seen as a new writing renaissance and ensure that those same precepts are embraced by a new type of musical theatre. The graduates of the Sondheim masterclasses [most of whom Lord represents] have developed a contemporary language which doesn't alienate my generation. It can move and confront; it can even be very transcendental, like good opera. As a generation, we respond to the three-minute hit, which is why if you combine Squeeze's province of story-telling song-writing with a kind of theatricality, you have something really interesting happening."

Among her four current projects are a musical from Gary Kemp (of Spandau Ballet), Guy Pratt (bassist with Pink Floyd) and Shane Connaughton (co- author of the screenplay for My Left Foot) about the love-affair between WB Yeats and Maud Gonne. Move over, Cameron Mackintosh.

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