US hails British theatre invasion

Transatlantic imports are enjoying critical and commercial success in New York's theatreland
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The Independent Culture

It is being described as the "Great British invasion" of Broadway, as increasing numbers of high quality dramas from the West End "make it big" in New York.

Alan Ayckbourn's quintessentially British comedy, The Norman Conquests, about a librarian's attempts to seduce women, is the latest play to announce a transatlantic transfer. It joins a growing influx of British imports dominating the "straight plays" of Broadway.

Sonia Friedman, the veteran producer nominated for 13 Olivier awards this week (including seven for her drag-club musical La Cage Aux Folles), said British dramas had acquired a high level of cultural kudos among New Yorkers, who often choose them over American shows containing high-voltage Hollywood actors. "The audiences in New York are not necessarily interested in major stars," she said. "They are interested in good theatre."

As well as the healthy flow of plays, such as Rock'n'Roll and Boeing Boeing, "Broadway producers are looking to Britain for creative teams," Friedman added. They tend to cast British actors such as Jeremy Irons, plus directing and producing talent.

The trend can be traced back to the transfer of Alan Bennett's award-winning The History Boys. "It started a few years ago when the pendulum swung on Broadway towards plays more than musicals, with the latter very expensive to put on – up to $15m while plays cost $2m to $3.5m," said Friedman.

"Producers were finding it difficult to make money back on musicals. The History Boys opened the floodgates. It's as if audiences discovered great quality drama and turned towards more intellectually challenging theatre."

Since then, shows that began with modest budgets in Britain have become critical and commercial hits in America, including Blackwatch, a play about Iraq veterans starring no big-name actors. Others include the Royal Court's The Seagull, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, which ran until the end of December, as well as Billy Elliot and Equus, with Daniel Radcliffe, both currently running.

Twenty new plays are due to open on Broadway over the next three months, among them British productions such as The Donmar's 2005 production of Mary Stuart, opening in April with its original London stars; God Of Carnage, which had its English premiere there last summer but which opens with an American cast in March; as well as The Norman Conquests in April.

The cost differences between New York and London are significant. Overheads of around £300,000 in the West End could hit £2.7m on Broadway. New York producers therefore pick "sure hits" that have proved their mettle in London. Friedman said the presence in the UK of a thriving subsidised sector, which produces highly acclaimed work on the capital's stages, undoubtedly helps the rate of transfers: "There are no subsidised companies in New York. Commercial producers have begun to see a gap in the market."

Paul James, commercial director at the Society of London Theatre (Solt), agreed: "There is nothing on Broadway like the powerhouse of our subsidised sector and what is produced in places like the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company."

Last month, figures revealed that 2008's theatre attendance was the best on record in the West End. Broadway, by contrast, was floundering at the end of the year, with a large number of empty theatres by Christmas.

Terri Paddock, editor of the website, said there had been an increase in British producers setting up offices and partnerships in New York. US producers tend to sign "first look" deals (with a view to transferring successful shows) with theatres here. The Broadway producer Bob Boyett brokered such an arrangement with the National Theatre and the Menier Chocolate Factory.

"It's a testament to the quality and variety of drama here that New York producers look to London to provide the imports that keep Broadway ticking over even when economic times are tough," Paddock said.

Last year's Tony Awards – which recognise the best Broadway shows – had a strong English contingent, with some critics hailing British theatre as the best in the world.

West End exports: The travelling shows

* The Donmar Warehouse's 2005 production of Mary Stuart is due to open in April, with its original London stars Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer.

* Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, a West End comedy about "bad manners", starring Ralph Fiennes, which had its English premiere in New York last summer, opens with an American cast in March.

* Equus, with Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths, opened in London in 2007. It transferred to Broadway in October last year.

* The West End musical Billy Elliot opened in New York last autumn to critical acclaim and is still running.

* The Royal Court's 2007 production of The Seagull, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, right, finished its Broadway run at the end of December and met its costs.

* Other long-running shows that have transferred from London to New York include Boeing Boeing and The Thirty-nine Steps.