Curtains! The theatre of runaway flops

West End musicals may come and go but few productions vanish as quickly as those at the Shaftesbury. As another show opens to bad reviews, Sholto Byrnes asks, is the venue cursed?
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In its 93 years, the Shaftesbury Theatre in theWest End of London has survived the Blitz, a gas explosion, and the threat to turn it into office space. But now, as yet another show opens to decidedly mixed reviews, and doubts about the length of its run, theatregoers are asking if the venue is cursed.

In its 93 years, the Shaftesbury Theatre in theWest End of London has survived the Blitz, a gas explosion, and the threat to turn it into office space. But now, as yet another show opens to decidedly mixed reviews, and doubts about the length of its run, theatregoers are asking if the venue is cursed.

The first night of The Far Pavilions on Thursday was condemned as "undercast and uninterestingly 'effective'" by The Independent's critic Paul Taylor. "This is a new century and the West End and the material and the audience deserve better," he wrote. In the Evening Standard, Nicholas de Jongh went further. "I cannot remember when I last saw a musical as laughably ludicrous as this," he wrote, slating the show as "competetent but not catchy" and the lyrics as "relentlessly dim".

This is the latest setback for a theatre which has been plagued by disaster in recent years. The previous show at the Shaftesbury, Bat Boy, was described by one critic as "the most batty experience the West End has offered in many a long day". Last year Thoroughly Modern Millie closed early because of poor ticket sales, despite receiving enthusiastic reviews, and its star, Amanda Holden, being nominated for an Olivier Award.

In 2002 the South African show Umoja was forced to close by Camden Council, after local residents complained about the noise. Its producer, Joe Theron, then sued the owners, the Theatre of Comedy Company, for loss of revenue. The previous year, another musical, Peggy Sue Got Married, ran for only eight weeks.

"It's sad to see flop after flop there," said Alan Strachan, a former artistic director of the Theatre of Comedy Company. "It is a difficult house, a little too big for plays but for musicals it doesn't have the capacity to give you the returns unless you have a very long run." The longest run at the Shaftesbury in the past 10 years has been 18 months for Rent, which closed in 1999. Asked if he would put a musical on at the Shaftesbury, Strachan replied: "Not if I could have the Prince of Wales, or Her Majesty's, or Drury Lane. There are much better houses for musicals."

"It has had bad luck," said Terri Paddock, editor of the theatre guide Whatsonstage.com. "There are two theatres that are touched by superstition - the Shaftesbury and the Piccadilly, and it's as much about location as anything else. The Piccadilly is tucked away, and the Shaftesbury is right at the end of the avenue, away from the rest of theatreland. It doesn't attract much passing trade. The location, combined with a string of shows that haven't done well, have given it this aura of bad luck."

According to Paddock, the theatre is not the first choice of many producers, and this leads to a "Catch 22" situation. "There are shows that on paper ought to do well, but don't when they're on there," she said. "And then there are others that end up there because they're not goers. It's almost a joke among theatregoers - if a show is on there, that's the nail in its coffin."

The supposed curse is, however, a relatively recent phenomenon. Opened in 1911 as the New Prince's Theatre, the venue enjoyed successes such as 1924's Stop Flirting, in which Fred and Adele Astaire made their UK debut, and the musical Hair, whose famous nudity was allowed only because censorship of the stage ended days before its opening in September 1968. Hair's run ended early, just before it was about to celebrate its 2,000th performance in July 1973, after parts of the ceiling fell in, and the theatre was closed until the following year.

Peter Thompson, publicist for The Far Pavilions, claimed that any recent upsets at the theatre are coincidental. "I've done enough flops at Drury Lane and no one says that's the graveyard of the West End," he said. "I can remember for years people saying that the Piccadilly was the graveyard for shows. And until Cats opened at the New London Theatre, that was seen as a place where shows failed. It only takes one to turn it all round."

The Shaftesbury Theatre, though, is going to have to have quite some hit if there's any chance of it shaking off Daily Telegraph critic Charles Spencer's definition of it as "a graveyard for duff musicals that opened only to die a horrible death".

No one from the Shaftesbury Theatre's owners, The Theatre of Comedy Company, was available for comment.

Six other shows that succumbed to the 'curse'

Bat Boy

Opened 8 September 2004. Music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe, book by Keythe Farley and Brian Fleming.

Starred Deven May, Rebecca Vere, John Barr, Maurey Richards and Emma Williams.

Plot The rise to fame of a creature, half-bat, half-boy, discovered in a cave in West Virginia; the blood-sucking freak of nature just wants to be normal. A camp production in the spirit ofThe Rocky Horror Show, it failed to find its cult.

What the critics said The Mail on Sunday: "Some of the cast can sing but, believe me, there's nothing to sing about."

Closed 15 January 2005

Peggy Sue Got Married

Opened 20 September 2001. Music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Jerry Leichtling.

Starred Ruthie Henshall, Andrew Kennedy.

Plot A musical of Francis Ford Coppola's 1986 movie about a women transported back to her teenage years, this was a victim of 9/11. Every theatre was hit, but one aimed at US tourists would suffer most. It lasted just eight weeks.

What the critics said Daily Mail: "Great energy and momentum... for the clean-cut firecracker Ruthie herself, the night is a triumph." Financial Times: "The singing and vocal writing are of an excellence rare in modern musicals.

Closed 13 October 2001

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Opened 21 October 2003. Written by Richard Henry Morris, lyrics by Dick Scanlan.

Starred Amanda Holden, Maureen Lipman, Sheila Ferguson.

Plot Girl from Kansas seeks success in the New York of the Jazz Age. A stage version of the 1967 film Millie, starring Julie Andrews. The winner of six Broadway Tonys, it failed to work at the Shaftesbury, its longish run only sustained by the middle-brow appeal of its stars.

What the critics said The Independent: "Thoroughly charmless, more like."The Mail on Sunday: "Holden... projects very little personality."

Closed 6 June 2004

Napoleon

Opened 17 October 2000. Lyrics by Andrew Sabiston, music by Timothy Williams.

Starred Paul Baker and Anastasia Barzee

Plot Why anyone felt that this production, which documented the little Corsican's life from his first meeting with Josephine to his Waterloo , was worth reviving, remains a mystery.

What the critics said Daily Telegraph: "Williams' score is a non-stop parade of churning, ersatz emotional anthems that go straight in one ear and out the other without troubling the brain, heart or memory, while the triteness of Sabiston's lyrics often beggars belief."

Closed 3 February 2001

125th Street

Opened 17 September 2002. Written by Rob Bettinson and Alan Janes.

Starred Domenick Allen, Peter Dalton, Johnnie Fiori.

Plot Set in the Apollo Theater in Harlem, during a live TV broadcast. Stars such as Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin are kept away by a riot outside, so the backstage crew have to step in.

What the critics said The Guardian: "There is almost certainly a good musical to be written about the glory days of the Apollo Theater in Harlem... this is very definitely not it."

Closed 11 January 2003

Lautrec

Opened 6 April 2000. Music and lyrics by Charles Aznavour, book by Shaun McKenna.

Starred Sevan Stephan, Hannah Waddington.

Plot The life of Toulouse-Lautrec, the 4ft-6in French artist who painted fin-de-siècle Paris.

What the critics said Financial Times: "Contrives to make the rich and eventful story of Toulouse-Lautrec's life bland and unengaging." The Independent: "Early on, Henri is given a talking-to by his parents: 'You are making the Lautrec name a laughing stock.' Oops."

Closed: 17 June 2000

Research by Terry Kirby and Sri Carmichael

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