New dawn in the West

Rumours of the death of the West End have been greatly exaggerated. Georgina Brown finds reasons to be cheerful
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The Independent Culture

The parking, the prices, the product - all those musicals, revivals, tired thrillers and endless tributes to dead rock stars - and, anyway, hasn't the quaint little theatre had its day? It's fashionable to whinge about the West End, and yes, the parking is a nightmare. Certainly you feel fleeced by booking fees on top of tickets which aren't cheap; the programmes are rubbish, the bar staff perform in slow-motion and the legroom will always be dire. But there is a bright side. What's on the stages has never been more diverse, or more exciting.

Take this week. New stuff from established names (Stoppard, Arthur Miller, Simon Gray, Edward Albee) and alongside it new stuff from nobodies: Kevin Elyot's gay and inspired My Night with Reg; Tracy Lett's rude and violent Killer Joe; Kay Mellor's OAP tragicomedy, A Passionate Woman. (Admittedly almost half of these originated elsewhere, but the West End as receiving house from the fringe and subsidised sector has been the state of play for decades. And the other half is your genuine home-grown West End produce, showing despite producers' threats to abandon the impossibly risky business of new work.)

And finally, to crown it all, is the wild card from the ground-breaking Theatre de Complicite, who are making their second West End appearance with the entrancing Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, which is selling out at the 1,400-seater Shaftesbury on a Saturday night.

The West End will always be volatile and unpredictable. Only last week it looked even less like itself with Cheek by Jowl's all-male As You Like It making a buzz at the Albery. It's rumoured that the avant-garde dance troupe the Featherstonehaughs will be following suit with a spin in Shaftesbury Avenue and that the Royalty is to become a permanent dance- house. Next week Complicite will have gone, and doubtless in a few months alarm bells will ring again when the British start gardening and stop going to the theatre, when shows flop, theatres go dark, producers lament the lack of investors and good plays, while attacking one another for being greedy and slagging off audiences for being stingy and stupid and old.

The age factor is the only one that truly matters. Only 22 per cent of the West End audience is aged between 16-24; in 1986 the figure was 34 per cent. The Society of London Theatres is hoping to help with a West End prom season, though not until 1996. Nica Burns who runs Stoll Moss, which owns 11 West End theatres, believes there is a more pressing need to cultivate new audiences. "We're putting our money where our mouth is," she says. This year Stoll Moss has produced Live Bed Show which, she hopes, will attract Paul Merton fans who have never been into a theatre before. Last year she also oversaw the "environmentalising" of the Royalty into the Island Theatre to enhance a musical set in the Caribbean, and enabled the director Deborah Warner to put on a 20- minute show (Beckett's Footfalls) twice nightly in a dramatically rearranged theatre.

"Landlords are realising that you can't just stick plays into theatres any more, you've got to get involved and be receptive to the needs of the people creating the show. You've also got to be inspired by what the public is choosing to do - theme parks are what they like, so we gave them the Island Theatre. A survey showed that a very high number of black people attended. We may take the wrong route, but at least we're trying things out. We need to retain theatre-going as a habit at a time when the leisure business is opening up and you can hire a video for 50p."

Burns is evidently delighted by the blip created by Complicite and Cheek by Jowl, which was undoubtedly assisted by landlords being both more generous and more imaginative about the deals they struck. "It's important to see these companies succeed in the West End. Complicite's Simon McBurney must be the closest thing we've got to Peter Brook and if this sort of thing happens to him, he won't go off and live in Paris, will he? This sort of experimental work feeds the theatre generally as well as introducing a new, young audience to the West End."

Her glee is tempered never the less by her anxiety over the absence of another generation of innovators. Companies like Complicite and Cheek by Jowl were properly funded by the Arts Council. They won Olivier awards, attention, approval and a West End showcase at the Donmar (when Burns ran it as a stepping-stone for new work) but now they are fast becoming part of the establishment. "The Arts Council isn't funding new creators in the same way," says Burns. "And there's another problem. Now that Sam Mendes runs the Donmar (and fills it with excellent work) there's nowhere in the West End for companies in their early stages to go."

Duncan Weldon, a producer of the type who finds a star and creates a package to lure either an RSC audience (Juliet Stevenson in The Duchess of Malfi), a telly audience (Rik Mayall in Cell Mates), or the "less sophisticated" treat-seeker (Raquel Welch in The Millionairess), has other concerns. "Everything works against the commercial theatre now. In the golden age, the West End didn't have to compete with the National and the RSC and the telly. The cinema was a good thing because the stars were busy at the studios during the day and came into town at night. Now it takes them abroad for months. Even the smallest show costs £150,000 and it takes a lot to get that back so you have to be philanthropic rather than commercial to put money into shows. Producers can't create writers any more because commercial shows which would have been premiered in the West End 20 years ago now find their way to the National or the RSC first. I've never been able to get the new stuff by the major playwrights because of that. I just have to get on with what's left." It so happens that Simon Gray's new play was among the recent pickings.

Certainly the interface between the flagship subsidised companies and the West End is hard to fathom. It seems completely arbitrary as to whether a playwright turns up at the Lyttelton or the Lyric. According to the producer Thelma Holt, "playwrights set up their stalls and go to the sweetest wooer. They usually know where their work will best be served." And the fact remains that the West End can be a very cruel place. The presence of Maggie Smith may guarantee success, but few actors have comparable pulling power and no playwright, not Pinter, Bennett, Shaffer, Ayckbourn or Stoppard, is a cast-iron commercial winner. A play that looks cosy within the National's repertoire, where it can be carefully protected and programmed for Friday and Saturday nights, might well wither within a month of doing eight performances a week in the West End, particularly without a star to support it.

A young producer, Guy Chapman, would like to see more subsidised plays given longer life in the West End - a season of work from the West Yorkshire Playhouse perhaps or a season of the Royal Court classics with starry casts. "Good plays encourage people to trust the West End again. The West End needs a fast turnover of product to keep everyone stimulated. It doesn't need crazy ticket discounts which make it impossible to budget. I'd like to see bars stay open so that people can discuss what they've seen, and better parking so they can stay out as long as they like."

Duncan Weldon suspects this will not happen and the consequence, he predicts, will be the closure of the least economic theatres, fewer new plays, and a "decentralisation of theatre as provincial theatres become more popular and more adventurous. Everything about going out in the West End is difficult and inconvenient and it will become a smaller part of the jigsaw puzzle."

The latest audience figures, down 2 per cent between comparable periods in 1993 and 1994, suggest it's happening already. And while every producer has ideas for improvements, dramatic change is doubtful. Michael Codron, the producer responsible for premiering the work of Stoppard, Pinter, Ayckbourn and Shaffer on the West End, is nevertheless quietly confident. "Good things are doing nicely. There's an excitement about seeing a good play in a beautiful theatre. It's an experience you can't get anywhere else in the world."