Old boys move over for new West End girls

Vanessa Thorpe on a revolution in Shaftesbury Avenue
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The Independent Online
A SUBVERSIVE force has taken over entertainment in the West End of London, and Shaftesbury Avenue will never be the same again.

For the first time, the plays and shows staged in more than half the theatres are to be selected and developed by women - and, what is more, by women who trained in the fringe and subsidised sectors.

The quiet revolution taking place behind the velvet curtains of Britain's most famous theatres is particularly remarkable in view of the fact that fewer than 10 per cent of the members of the Society of London Theatre - the umbrella body of West End houses - are women.

The change of command is considered by many to be long overdue. If nothing else, it is a pulsing sign of life in a business pronounced dead last week by members of the Arts Council's drama panel. Leading the battlecharge from the wings is Nica Burns, formerly of the Donmar Warehouse and now established at Stoll Moss, which runs 10 theatres across the capital.

Her appointment as production director was the first sign that West End financiers were changing their attitude to the smaller scale, subsidised theatre: its characteristic sensitivity to fresh talent and commitment to development were suddenly both at a premium.

The trend was consolidated in February with the appointment of Brigid Larmour at Associated Capital Theatres and, this month, of Sonia Friedman at the Ambassadors Theatre Group. Both women will be in charge of developing new work and both have acquired all their expertise in the subsidised theatre.

Larmour, 38, was one of the key figures behind the successful Contact Theatre company, based in Manchester. She is now developing shows that will fill eight London venues, including the Albery, the Criterion, Wyndham's and the Whitehall.

"It is telling that we three have arrived in the West End at roughly the same time," she said. "The commercial theatre appears to have seen our work and thought 'I want a bit of that'."

She admits that in the past she was "a bit cynical" about the concerns of the big boys in Shaftesbury Avenue. "I used to be slightly sanctimonious, but I now realise that in the commercial sector you have to have an idea you can explain to investors. These people are going to take brave decisions and without them the commercial sector just wouldn't exist."

The future of the West End, Larmour believes, rests on strong links between all sectors of the business: a truly mixed economic alliance between subsidy, fringe and private investment. Much of the work she has commissioned will not be seen until later in the year, but ACT has already backed the well- received Warehouse Productions revival of Black Comedy and The Real Inspector Hound.

A comparative old hand, Nica Burns's triumphs in the commercial sector have already been saluted. Since she arrived at Stoll Moss, acclaimed productions such as Patrick Marber's Closer, Ben Elton's Popcorn and David Farr's Elton John's Glasses, have all transferred to her theatres. She also presided over the annual Perrier Award for comedy at the Edinburgh Festival.

Like Larmour, she believes the commercial sector has at last woken up to the importance of strong research and development. "I feel like asking, 'What took you so long?'," she said.

While women have been active in the subsidised sector for years, Burns argues that it was always wrong to assume they wanted to stay there. "It's quite a big change to suddenly have three women at the top of major West End companies," she said. "It is because it has been harder for women to raise money and have doors opened for them. We haven't got an old boys' network in the same way."

Sonia Friedman, of the Out of Joint theatre company, will be the last of the new female firebrands to take up her role. She joins the Ambassadors Theatre Group in two months and is braced for a culture shock. Her leaking- roofed office in north London will be replaced by a plush new base off Shaftesbury Avenue.

"It is a very big move for me," she admitted, "but this is where the opportunities are. The subsidised theatre cannot develop our careers, because it does not have enough resources."