Hire the show, then say no

A new generation of impresarios is calling the shots in the West End. Robert Butler lifts the curtain
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You're a producer who has found a play, raised the money and hired a cast. You've put it on out-of-town and people love it. Now comes the hard part: how to get it into London.

There is only a very small group of people who decide the content of West End theatres. And for them it's a question of finding the right product for the right venue at the right moment. Like comic acting, getting your show into the West End is a matter of timing.

When the Independent's theatre critic, Paul Taylor, reviewed Simon Gray's latest play, The Late Middle Classes, at its opening at Watford in April, he ended his notice: "There will be no justice if this play does not transfer, but since the West End is not known for justice, lovers of emotionally literate theatre should head now for Watford." Lovers of emotionally literate theatre did head for Watford, where (according to the play's director) "it broke all records". They also headed to Brighton where it did "extremely well" and Richmond where it "sold out".

And that was that. Six weeks after its opening, the news was that negotiations had stalled between the producers and the theatre owners (in this case, Stoll Moss). The Late Middle Classes hadn't found a West End home. The director, Harold Pinter, expressed "a deep sense of shock and betrayal". Nica Burns at Stoll Moss responded that she wasn't going to be cast as "the bad fairy".

The face of the West End is changing rapidly. Last week saw the announcement of the first play to benefit from the pounds 1m trust set up by the retired businessman Peter Woolf. The trust's remit was to find plays that were "decent, fun, family entertainment". The trust is investing pounds 200,000 in Liz Lochhead's play Perfect Days, which opens at the Vaudeville next month.

The West End is also seeing new managements spring up, and theatre owners developing more creative, flexible partnerships with producers, opting for short runs and exploiting new ways of finding revenue other than simply selling tickets. In terms of content, the off-West End theatre has advanced on the West End and the fringe has blurred with the mainstream. But one constant remains. The people who choose the shows for the West End live in fear that there won't be anything out there and their theatres will go dark.

So who are these people and how do they decide what gets put on?

NICA BURNS

Theatres: Apollo, Cambridge, Duchess, Drury Lane, Garrick, Gielgud, Her Majesty's, Lyric, Palladium and Queens

A law graduate and former actress, Nica Burns's job, as production director of Stoll Moss, is to fill 10 West End theatres - from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which houses Miss Saigon, to the Duchess where Michael Frayn's intellectual thriller Copenhagen has just extended its run with a new cast. Some are long runners. At the Garrick An Inspector Calls has had "nearly every secondary school in the country through its doors". A former artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, director of Fascinating Aida and director of the Perrier Pick of the Fringe at Edinburgh, Nica Burns spends most of her life dealing with shows that we never get to see. "If I had a pound for every show I've worked on that has fallen to bits, I'd retire." Burns tries to reverse the usual flow of talent (from theatre to television) by encouraging TV writers to write for the stage. Marks and Gran have written a play for her, Patient A, about Hitler and Freud ("not like Birds of a Feather at all"). Burns has also set up "surgeries" on Wednesday afternoons for young producers to come in and try out their ideas, and ransack the Stoll Moss Filofaxes for names of contacts. "Good producers," says Burns, "are as important as good playwrights." Recent shows that didn't find an audience include Master Class, Elton John's Glasses and Animal Crackers. But in 1998 the four theatres that Stoll Moss owns "on the Avenue" were all showing new plays: Ben Elton's Popcorn, Patrick Marber's Closer, Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking and Alan Ayckbourn's The Things We Do For Love. "That's what we're aiming for the whole time. But there's never enough quality product."

SAM SHROUDER

Theatres: Apollo Victoria, Labatts Apollo, Dominion and Lyceum

Shrouder has a simple brief. As chief executive of Apollo Entertainments (which he joined 18 years ago, two years after it was founded) he's looking for "a massive hit that stays there a long time". Big shows run up pre- production costs of pounds 4m-pounds 5m, so a two-year minimum run is essential. With Beauty and The Beast at the Dominion and The Lion King opening at the Lyceum, half his London venues will be filled by Disney products. He describes his job as "just opportunism". He was able to slot the National's Oklahoma! into the Lyceum for a limited run because The Lion King isn't arriving until the autumn. His longest-running show, and the one that he is proudest of, is Starlight Express. That's in its 16th year. His shortest running show was the people's musical Bernadette (where members of the public became investors). That ran for a couple of weeks. Not that Shrouder didn't like it. "I'm one of those people who enjoy everything. People were saying 'wasn't that awful?' I was saying I quite enjoyed it."

NICK SALMON:

Theatres: Albery, Comedy, Criterion, Donmar, Phoenix, Piccadilly, Whitehall, Wyndham's

A former actors' agent, Nick Salmon, director of production and programming for Associated Capital Theatres (ACT), believes "the West End is going through one of its peaks - artistically, certainly". He agrees with Nica Burns that "it's essential that we do everything to encourage young producers. If it wasn't for the producers, nothing would happen. Theatre owners wouldn't be alive". Two years ago, for instance, the Almeida spoke to him about doing Plenty in the West End with Cate Blanchett. "Two years ago I hadn't heard of Cate Blanchett."

West End theatre is a huge industry: officially it's worth more than pounds 1bn to the economy. But the Government isn't helping out. It is very hard for young producers to raise money because of the financial services regulations. "To put on a play will cost a quarter of a million pounds and technically you're not allowed to ring people up and ask them to invest unless you know them."

SALLY GREENE

Theatres: Criterion, Old Vic

With its location in Piccadilly Circus, the Criterion has one of the best "doors" in the West End. "We want something young and buzzy," says managing director Greene, "something that people can walk into on the night. There's no use putting on Noel Coward."

The Reduced Shakespeare Company was booked for three months and has been there three years. The shows at the Criterion range from My Night With Reg to Nicol Williamson's one-man show about John Barrymore, where he walked off the stage on the second night. Greene is a big fan of Antony Sher. "If anyone doesn't share my opinion, that's terrible. I'd love to bring his Macbeth to London." (It opens this winter at Stratford.)

At the Old Vic Sally Greene has the American sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay coming for a month, and then Peter O'Toole redoing Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. After that comes Declan Donnellan's Antigone - a sign of the times in itself. It's a Donmar warehouse production staged at the Old Vic with ACT co-producing. "I'd like to say that none of my shows has been a failure," says Greene, "but I suppose Nicol Williamson was - because he buggered off."

GEORGE BIGGS

Theatres: Prince Edward and the Prince of Wales

"You look into the crystal ball," says Biggs, managing director of Delfont Mackintosh, "and ask how long will it last and when will I have to find another one?" Twelve months ago Biggs went to a rehearsal room in Brixton to hear a read-through of the script of Mamma Mia! At that point neither of his two theatres was going to be available in 1999. The next musical scheduled for the Prince Edward was Ragtime. When its producers cancelled, Biggs offered the Prince Edward to the Mamma Mia! producers. They had wanted the Prince of Wales. "If Mamma Mia! had failed," he says, "I'd be hunting around very quickly." As it is, Mamma Mia! is a runaway success and Biggs won't have to look for another show for the Prince Edward for years. Biggs says it's the art of shuffling. "The trick is knowing how long a show will run. To keep a big theatre closed costs a fortune."

DOMINIC DROMGOOLE

Theatre: Whitehall

The ex-artistic director of the Bush has found a West End home for the Oxford Stage Company by treating the Whitehall as an 18-week section of the company's touring commitments. He has boldly attempted to broaden the type of playwright presented in the West End by staging Robert Holman's Making Noise Quietly, with Eleanor Bron. He is also determined to bring in very new, very young work to the West End. "Part of the fun, and the way the ecosystem is changing, is that you can do stupid things and give people very fast breaks." The production of Anouilh's Eurydice that Dromgoole is transferring from BAC ("it's exquisite, very mature") has a 23-year-old director and a 24-year-old producer. "We are changing all the rules. We are coming in, very financially secure. We're viewing it as part of a tour. We're coming in to have a good time." Dromgoole believes theatre owners are wising up to the possibilities of cross-marketing, cross-subscribing, co-production, short runs and the wider exploitation of rights. "Senior management used to be run the way breweries were run. They were old-fashioned and deliberately blunt. If it doesn't sell, it's coming off. Selling tickets is still the bottom line, but it's not as simple as that."

STEPHEN WALEY-COHEN

Theatres: St. Martin's, Savoy, Vaudeville and Victoria Palace

Waley-Cohen runs one venue where they haven't had to pick a new show since 1952. That's The Mousetrap at St Martin's, far and away the longest running play in British theatre. On a shorter run, Waley-Cohen brought The Colour of Justice, the reconstruction of the Stephen Lawrence case, into the Victoria Palace for two weeks. "That was not a commercial decision. That was almost in the nature of a public service." Geraldine McEwan will open next month in Declan Donnellan's production of Hay Fever at the Savoy. Liz Lochhead's play Perfect Days transfers next month to the Vaudeville, thanks to the beneficence of Peter Woolf. The toughest part of the job, says Waley-Cohen, is "remembering that you don't know what will work. You are always having to plan for it not being a success." The exuberant South African musical Kat and the Kings, for instance, which ran at the Vaudeville, beat Rent and Whistle Down the Wind to win an Olivier award for Best New Musical and Best Actor (for the whole cast). It ran only a few months and didn't earn its money back. "I haven't managed to work that one out," says Waley-Cohen.

SONIA FRIEDMAN

Theatre: New Ambassadors

Over the next two years Sonia Friedman will be presenting about 25 new plays in the West End, in a major initiative that will redefine what can be shown, what is and isn't mainstream, and what can now be eligible for the major awards. Friedman set up Out-of-Joint with Max Stafford-Clark, and before that ran the Mobile Educational Unit for the National.

Her season at the New Ambassadors opens this Tuesday with Holy Mothers by Werner Swab which, she has predicted, "some will call outrageous, some offensive, some hysterical". Friedman has scheduled short, limited runs instead of open-ended ones. "We're selling work across a season. We're selling a theatre policy. We're brochure-driven." Audiences can buy discounted tickets across a season.

Friedman aims to have shows on 52 weeks a year, but this year she has had to settle for 51. "We've had to take a week off for the Millennium," she explains.

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