My friend went to Cinderalla. All I got was this lousy T-shirt

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Cinderella may have been happy with a glass slipper, but AMP are determined that their audiences will leave with nothing less than a T- shirt, a key-ring and a photo of Adam Cooper. Louise Levene on the merchandising of a West End dance craze

You've seen the show, now wash the T-shirt. Once upon a time, it was just the cast album, but since Cats the range of showtime souvenirs to treasure has expanded to include anything from perfume to bumbags. God (or maybe Walt Disney) knows who started this peculiar trend but it seems to be here to stay and, for Broadway and West End musicals (and their globetrotting clone productions), merchandising is very big business. Dance companies used to keep it fairly simple and be grateful to sell a few posters but Adventures in Motion Pictures, with its young, less conventional audience base, has always been big in T-shirts.

But how big? "Large and extra large only," says Katharine Dore, AMP's producer. Er, aren't the young people wearing them a little tighter than that these days? "Oh, all right then: small, large and extra large."

We are sat round a table at the Soho HQ of AMP's marketing agency Dewynters (who handle everything from Grease to Phantom of the Opera) debating the T-shirt designs for the company's new Cinderella. I suddenly panic at the thought that my little suggestion will lumber them with a container load of undersized leisurewear until I discover that we are talking about precisely three boxes of 50 T-shirts. AMP may be growing like yeast but Dore is caution personified. "We used to be something so small and ad hoc but this is getting to be big business. It's worth not doing as much as we could on merchandising Cinderella: we need to spend some time getting it right."

A great deal of time is spent mulling over the various T-shirt designs. They're all black, some have a reproduction of the poster on them, some simply have a blue stiletto on the front and a clock about to strike midnight on the back. Very subtle, until you see the "AMP Cinderella" on the sleeve. It is only with great difficulty that Dore is persuaded that "Matthew Bourne's production of" and "from 26 September at the Piccadilly Theatre" cannot possibly be made to fit on the average human biceps.

In fact the poster and T-shirt designs are hugely inferior to the AMP publicity of the past. The T-shirts for Bourne's 1992 Hitchcock homage Deadly Serious featured a close-up of a screaming woman. A slightly mad, rather camp image that you didn't mind walking around in. The current designs, with their cynical emphasis on branding, turn the purchaser into a human poster site. It shifts tickets, though.

We move from T-shirts to key-rings, tacky little shoes with diamonds on that wouldn't last five minutes in the war zone of the average handbag. The agency thinks it might be possible to get "Cinderella" written inside where Freeman Hardy and Willis would normally go. "Can we make that 'AMP's Cinderella'?" wonders Dore.

The fever of media excitement surrounding Swan Lake, with its record- breaking West End run and its huge success in LA, has made it seem as if the company had sprung fully-fledged on to the London stage. In fact, of course, Bourne's troupe is 10 years old and started very small indeed when a 27-year-old, who hadn't danced a step until he was 22, started making pieces like the hilarious, animated Damart ad Spitfire for his hard-working seven-man outfit.

Dore is determined that AMP's new-found audience should understand that the West End phenomenon they are now watching started with nothing more than a small grant and boundless creative enthusiasm. The Cinderella brochure (sold by AMP in addition to the Piccadilly Theatre's own programme) will contain a double-page spread charting the history of the company. Dore starts producing an endless succession of transparencies from her capacious handbag like a doting granny showing snapshots of her brood. The designer gazes in disbelief at the growing pile of trannies on the table: "Do you want to use all of these?" "Not necessarily. I just like looking at them."

This affection for photographic mementoes of the productions extends to the audience, and Dore and the account manager at Dewynters are busy deciding which pictures to reproduce for sale. What about a limited pack of five prints? Lousy idea. If you call it a limited edition, you've got to number and authenticate every print and, besides, there seems to be a Jackie-reader mentality in the most sophisticated of audiences: people only really want pictures of the dancers they fancy. For a very large number of recent AMP converts, this would appear to be Adam Cooper.

The ex-Royal Ballet principal, who became a star in the dual role of nice Swan/nasty Swan in Bourne's Swan Lake, now takes on the heroic part of the Pilot in the first cast of the company's new Cinderella. Punters unused to the need for dancers to rest were sometimes enraged to learn that he wouldn't be appearing every night - Michael Crawford managed it, after all. Dore briefs Dewynters to produce disclaimer notices regarding cast changes that must be posted around the Piccadilly Theatre: "The audiences just didn't understand when he had five broken bones in his foot."

Although Dore and Bourne are obviously delighted with Cooper's success, they are determined that the productions should be greater than the individuals performing in them: "There isn't a person featured on the poster."

The other thrifty reason for keeping the designs personality-free is the fact that, since being denied a fresh grant by the Arts Council last March, Adventures in Motion Pictures has had to restructure itself as a commercial outfit and has to plan on an almost global scale. In addition to the parent company of AMP Ltd, there is now a Russian doll of wholly- owned subsidiary companies like AMP Licensing Ltd (which guards the rights to all the productions) and AMP Cinderella Ltd and AMP Swan Lake Ltd. This ring-fencing of productions means that any loss-making venture need not affect the livelihood of the main concern - a business paradigm that can be found throughout the West End. Bourne may have started small but he and his works are poised to enter a very big league. There are plans to clone Swan Lake for simultaneous tours in Australia and the United States - it would take cloning of a rather different kind to enable Adam Cooper to dance at all performances.

Swan Lake wasn't originally designed for this sort of treatment and the long run last winter put a fantastic strain on the dancers, particularly the corps of male swans. "The whole structure is wrong for this sort of work. The boys were on every night, so many of them were injured." There were originally only 28 of them, but the pool of swans was expanded to 40 in Los Angeles and will be increased to a lavish 44 for the New York run next year. Not only were the swans worn out, the other performers got tired doing the same character night after night. Bourne has learnt his lesson, says Dore: "Cinderella has been created differently, with more swapping of roles. It's very hard for dancers to churn out the same performances all the time."

This need to protect the creative core of the company runs parallel to Dore's excitement about its current expansion. "The thing I'm nervous about is that we might just become productions. We're not. We're a company. If we lose that sense of company, Matt's creative base, then it's the beginning of the end." It's a heartfelt sentiment but you can't fit it on a T-shirt.

Now previewing at the Piccadilly, London W1 (0171-369 1734)