The show must go on - even if it's money-grabbing and old hat

The West End is more stagnant than ever. But it's not just star casting that is to blame, argues Kate Bassett
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London's West End, after a recent extraordinary period of revitalisation, has gone to the dogs. That's the worry voiced by many London critics in the last couple of months. Witness the Evening Standard crying: "To whom are producers trying to appeal?" or Paul Taylor in The Independent likening Theatreland to "a cross between a mortuary and drama's Street of Shame."

London's West End, after a recent extraordinary period of revitalisation, has gone to the dogs. That's the worry voiced by many London critics in the last couple of months. Witness the Evening Standard crying: "To whom are producers trying to appeal?" or Paul Taylor in The Independent likening Theatreland to "a cross between a mortuary and drama's Street of Shame."

In the late 1990s, a great buzz was generated when the subsidised Royal Court theatre company breezed into the commercial centre of town. Taking over the Duke of York's and the Ambassadors Theatre, they presented 50 new plays, including Mark Ravenhill's polemical Shopping and F***ing and Conor McPherson's The Weir. Now the Court has returned to base in South Kensington. The acclaimed Almeida theatre company, resident at the Albery in 1998 and 1999, has headed back to North London. Consequently, Theatreland's square mile between Piccadilly Circus and the Strand seems, these days, a comparatively bleak scene. It doesn't help that nearly half of the area's 40-odd venues are clogged up with longrunning productions and a clutch of mid-1980s blockbuster musicals.

The reviewers have particularly bemoaned the commercial houses' increasingly undiscerning obsession with celebrity casting. This autumn we've had Hollywood's Daryl Hannah, Greta Scacchi and Macaulay Culkin in quick succession. While ex-supermodel Jerry Hall is still getting her kit off and displaying her shockingly scant acting skills in The Graduate. A spate of pointlessly re-staged vintage movies have only inspired further grumbles. Brief Encounter, The Graduate and Hannah's feeble star-vehicle, The Seven Year Itch, were - until last week - all lined up on Shaftesbury Avenue.

But it's not just the critics who are depressed by this trend. The press agent Lynne Kerwin admits: "It's terribly sad that you now have to have a star to get advance coverage in the press." Maybe the tide will turn if, as she surmises, the public have got wise and a celeb, per se, doesn't guarantee sales anymore. One might suspect the overall situation is related to the massive take-overs in theatre ownership. In January, the Really Useful Group bought Stoll Moss's West End empire of 10 theatres for £87m, making Andrew Lloyd Webber king of 13 venues. Not long after, ATG (Ambassadors Theatre Group) took over seven playhouses from ACT (Associated Capital Theatres) for £18m, pushing up their total to nine. Read the small print and one notices with alarm that Really Useful Theatres (a subsidiary of RUG) housed all the aforementioned staged movies. Is this what you call getting stuck in a RUT?

Maybe, but one should be wary of melodramatic scaremongering. Shallow showbiz glitz has been around since the days of impresario Binkie Beaumont. And Iain McDiarmid, co-director of the Almeida, pragmatically recognises that "there'll always be tensions between financial interests and artistic endeavours." The long-standing West End producer Bill Kenwright reckons RUG and ATG simply haven't yet recovered from their massive spend. "They need time to bed down," he believes. As for star casting, Kenwright claims it has developed because modern-day actors - with lucrative screen work calling them - won't commit to budget-recouping long runs and only luminaries pull crowds fast. He rebuffs the notion of a sudden screen-to-stage fad too, revealing he only brought his touring production of Brief Encounter into town because he was obliged to fill a scheduling gap at the Lyric prior to his prize show, A Long Day's Journey Into Night with Jessica Lange (now previewing).

As for The Graduate, Nica Burns of RUT argues it's popular fare that's "doing stonking business". More persuasively, she says the company are eagerly scouting for new plays. Ian Rickson, artistic director of the Royal Court, certainly feels the West End is more open-minded now. "We're being approached about some of our studio shows, which would never have happened before," he argues. In fact, things might be looking up. Kenwright's production of Noel Coward's Fallen Angels has just landed at RUT's Apollo and proved terrifically funny, while the admired producer Nick Salmon (of now-roving production company ACT) is presenting Harold Pinter's The Caretaker with Michael Gambon at ATG's Comedy Theatre this week.

Ambassadors Theatre Group, to their credit, own Sam Mendes' Donmar Warehouse and the New Ambassadors where Sonia Friedman's pioneering programming provides a platform for inventive touring troupes. Marie Jones's witty Irish two-hander, Stones In His Pockets, has at least proved a star-free barnstormer there and has since transferred to the Duke Of York's.

Finally, there's the grant-aided Soho Theatre Company which nurtures fledgling playwrights and is now ensconced in its very own Lottery-funded building off the Avenue. "We are attracting a lot of door trade - people just passing - and we're pretty much sold out," says artistic director Abigail Morris.

All the same, producers going into the big Edwardian and Victorian edifices of the commercial sector face terrifyingly high costs, which inevitably discourage adventurous programming. The contras (the fees an incoming producer has to pay for technical staff and everything down to loo rolls) have rocketed. Advertising budgets are now astronomical. While enormous advances have been made in marketing with computerised mailing lists and 24-hour ticket lines, the prices asked for those booking systems are scandalous.

What can be done to make the West End more alluring for producers and audiences alike? Kenwright regretfully suggests that theatres would be cheaper if, Broadway-style, they went dark between productions and didn't have year-round staff. Salmon wants governmental action on several fronts. Grants must be strongly maintained, he urges, "because the talent that's trained so well in the subsidised theatre is the seedbed for the West End." Secondly, there's the crippling VAT from which, he argues, theatre should be exempt. "VAT is the main reason you do not see more good shows in the West End," he says. British tax laws also render small investors' accounts unnecessarily complex and, Salmon laments: "The Financial Service Act is potty, making it almost illegal for me to call up potential investors. It could be changed without much difficulty."

As for the theatres themselves, more daytime activities - like the masterclasses at the Haymarket Theatre Royal and Soho Theatre's lunchtime shows - would make the buildings seem more accessible. Architecturally, English Heritage - while protecting the antique - must let West End theatres be working buildings. I'd support Lloyd Webber's scheme to knock through the foyers of the Apollo and the Lyric to create - within the old ornate frame of the former - a 500-seat studio, a size that's proved highly practical in New York. En route, shrinking the auditorium ought to free up space for a money-earning bar or cafe.

Additionally, why not attract those elusive younger audiences with an annual, crowd-pulling, one-pound-a-show day, as offered by the capital's cinemas. Beyond that, West End playhouses need to establish stronger individual identities year-round. The New Ambassadors' agenda is highly promising. McDiarmid suggests other theatres could bring in top directors to create their own choice seasons. That alone would be a start.