David Lister: If reality TV sells out theatres, I'm all for it

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The Independent Online

Theatre is booming and London's playhouses enjoyed their best ever year in 2007. Theatre is in decline with the number of plays opening down by a third on the previous year and 65 per cent of theatregoers watching musicals. Discuss.

The latest statistics certainly give ammunition to both West End optimists and pessimists. The optimists can point to box-office takings of £470m and an increase in younger, first-time audiences. The pessimists highlight a lack of straight plays, with the ones that did open having to rely on celebrity casting. And there were more musicals. Worse, the biggest were cast on the back of reality TV shows.

I'm a West End optimist. First, when it comes to celebrity casting, I'm comfortable with Daniel Radcliffe moving over from Harry Potter to play (in perfectly competent if uninspired style) the lead in Peter Shaffer's Equus – especially if it brought his young fan base to see one of the most compelling plays of the past 50 years. How could they not begin a love affair with the theatre after seeing that?

Second, I'm not one of those who believe that musicals are second-rate theatre. Musical theatre composers such as Stephen Sondheim and, yes, Andrew Lloyd Webber, are fully conscious of the dramatist's art; and give or take a Gone with the Wind, directors such as Trevor Nunn, Stephen Daldry, and Phyllida Lloyd know how to make a musical an evening of genuine theatre. If reality TV programmes bring audiences into the West End, then they, too, must be welcomed.

Of course, the lifeblood of theatre is the straight play. But the truth is that we have not lost the straight play, nor our appetite for it. Last year saw queues round the block for sold-out London runs of King Lear and Macbeth. And, actually, the statistics from the Society of London Theatre are misleading as regards culture in the capital. West End theatres may have more musicals than straight plays. But they exclude venues like the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Roundhouse, the Almeida, the Tricycle, the Menier Chocolate Factory, the Arcola and all those other venues putting on not only straight plays, but new writing by young dramatists.

Add in these venues – which Londoners and others visit in their tens of thousands – and the statistics for straight plays look much rosier. Theatre is in pretty good health.

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