Has London theatre reached the stage where it can't find a decent audience?

`London Theatre is impersonal. Its audiences are full of tourists; its actors do not have a communal spirit'

WHEN SIR Ian McKellen fired his broadside at theatre in the capital in an interview in The Independent yesterday, he did so in spirited style. He questioned whether some people in the audience at the National Theatre could even speak the language and wondered why there were no black faces in the audience. And he said he was moving for six months to Leeds to find fulfilment in the repertory company of the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Sir Ian is not the first of Britain's great classical actors to be caustic about London audiences. Six years ago Sir Alec Guinness turned his back on the West End, remarking: "I'd rather go to the provinces where they still speak English and not Japanese."

Sir Ian McKellen chooses more lyrical language. He does not, he says, want to "betray the soul of acting" by performing any more in large theatres with no idea of what sort of people are in the audience. In the regions, he says, local people look on the theatre as theirs and build up a relationship with the actors, just as the actors in an old-fashioned rep company where they appear in several plays and build up a relationship with each other.

In Leeds, the West Yorkshire Playhouse artistic director, Jude Kelly, is making radical attempts to bring theatre to new audiences. There has already been a cyber cafe, and there will soon be video screens in the foyer to accompany an adaptation of the best-selling book Deadmeat by the multimedia artist Q.

Jude Kelly said: "To secure the future of theatre we need to find ways to encourage new, young audiences. To do this it is essential that we explore mediums that excite and enthral younger generations and celebrate subjects and ideas that appeal to them."

And London's best-known impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh has chosen to premiere his second re-working of the musical Martin Guerre in Leeds, saying: "The West Yorkshire Playhouse is without doubt one of the most exciting and adventurous regional theatres in the country and I am proud to be a part of it."

Yesterday a bewildered theatreland in London was fighting back. The Society of London Theatre pointed to a new report, prepared at the London School of Economics, which shows West End theatre as a billion-pound business. In the first study to give a complete picture of the popularity and economic impact of theatre in the capital, it shows that 11.5 million seats were sold in the West End last year with a ticket revenue of pounds 246m.

The report, written by Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the LSE, also states that 41,000 jobs depend on West End theatre, theatregoers in London spent pounds 433m on restaurants, hotels, transport and merchandise last year and London theatre's total economic impact in 1997 was pounds 1,075m.

Nica Burns, production director of Stoll Moss Theatres, said last night: "Please come back Ian McKellen. The West End would love to have you back and you would find that we have a flush of contemporary writing with such shows as Popcorn and Closer. It's a terrible misconception that most audiences are made up of tourists."

The West End producer Thelma Holt, who is also the Cameron Mackintosh professor of contemporary theatre at Oxford University, said: "I think British audiences are the best in the world. Last week three and a half hours of Hamlet in Japanese received rapturous applause at the Barbican. Of course there are a lot of foreigners in our audiences but I think that's an advantage. It's nice to have a cosmopolitan audience."

Leading article,

Review, page 3

Is Ian McKellen Right?

The View From The Stalls

The Independent went to a performance of Closer at the Lyric Theatre, in Shaftesbury Avenue,London, to ask theatregoers whether West End audiences actually appreciate what they're seeing on the stage.

Craig Kennedy, 42, attorney,

from San Francisco

"I know absolutely nothing about this play. We bought tickets for it at a half-price ticket booth after flying in this morning. What this actor says is fine by me."

Sue Hall, 43, housewife,

from Putney, London

"I haven't been to the theatre for quite a long time - I just haven't arranged it for a while. I think it's probably right that there are a lot of tourists because they have the time to go."

Robert Southgate, 64, retired,

from Warwickshire

"I come to the theatre a lot. If he [Sir Ian McKellen] said he would rather play in the provinces I'm delighted about it because I'm on the board of the Birmingham Rep."

Anne Tilesi, 51, travel agent

from Tunbridge Wells, Kent

"I don't understand McKellen's remarks. An audience is an audience wherever they come from. It would be like me saying I won't have anyone booking a holiday who isn't English."

John Stone, 53, stockbroker,

from Dagenham, Essex

"I come to the theatre very much... probably once a fortnight. I've got a lot of respect for Ian McKellen but I think London is the place for theatre and culture."

Victoria Burke, 53, self-employed,

from Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

"We've done all the big ones - Miss Saigon, Cats, Les Mis... It's very sad that Ian McKellen has taken that attitude. It's quite arrogant to say foreigners don't appreciate the theatre."

William Robertson, 34, yoga instructor

from New Zealand

"I don't go to the theatre regularly. I see movies more often. I found out about this from Time Out. I think a large proportion of people seeing plays in London aren't from England."

The Rev Geraldine James, 65, minister

from Maryland, USA

"I love the theatre, but I don't go much in the States - so this is a treat for me.To me [Sir Ian McKellen's] reading into the mind of his audience something that might not be true."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Packaging Operatives

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for two indivi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Recruitment Genius: Estimator

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a major supplier of buil...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£28000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas