New dawn in the West

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

THEATRE 2000

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."

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past