David Lister: The Week in Arts

In praise of the middle-class theatre audience
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The Independent Online

One of the best reviewed theatre productions of the Christmas season has been Nicholas Nickleby, an adaptation that has transferred to the West End from Chichester's Festival Theatre. It is directed by Chichester's artistic director, Jonathan Church. In an interview to publicise the production, Mr Church made what I believe to be some of the most important and astounding pronouncements heard in the whole of the arts this year.

Mr Church, a former director of the Birmingham Rep theatre and known as a theatre radical, said that Chichester, best known for its ageing, conservative audience, has a much more interested audience than he encountered in Birmingham. "It is," he says, "older than average. But they're theatre-literate. They're passionate... and they're thirsty for new work. This is the only regional city I've worked in where 'new play' isn't two swear words."

He also is staggered at "the amount of money that's been spent pursuing audiences who don't want to come in cities that don't really want theatre", and questions whether "too much time has been spent creating work to find new audiences without supporting the audiences who came in the first place".

These are radical sentiments indeed. And, if Mr Church hadn't made a joke in his interview he recalled how the Chichester audiences at the Nickleby premiere "were up on their feet, which in Chichester is quite an achievement given the average age" I might have assumed he was suffering from depression. For, while theatre depends on the middle aged and middle classes, no one ever dares not just to admit that but to rejoice in the fact. And no one, but no one, in the theatre establishment has ever dared to question the quest for new audiences. Mr Church risks being drummed out of the artistic directors' union.

Some of Mr Church's conclusions do surprise me. He says ruefully that "in Birmingham, a city of two million people, you fight to get 12,000 to 15,000 people to a play. Here in a city of 25,000 people [Chichester], you can get 25,000 people to a play. It's bonkers." I have contributed to a book on the arts renaissance in Birmingham and my researches there found a flourishing scene. But Mr Church ran the Birmingham Rep, and I did not, so I must assume he knows his statistics.

His main argument, though, that the audiences we think of as conservative and middle class actually relish new work and support theatre is one that has needed to be said. Take that together with the recent plea by the head of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, for some right-of-centre political plays, and the Royal Court's Dominic Cooke for some plays addressing middle-class dilemmas rather than the kitchen sink, and one can sense the approach of a new climate in the arts, and theatre in particular.

Which is not to say that the quest for new audiences should not continue. It must, or the art form will wither. And I still maintain that ticket price will prove the key factor in bringing in that new audience. But it is refreshing to see that theatre directors have tired of biting the hands that feed them. In an auditorium, any equation between class and radical taste or lack of it is a facile one. Cultural radicals can be older and more affluent than is generally acknowledged. Mr Church seems to have gone through a conversion to this view on the road to Chichester.

So the year ends with the unlikeliest clarion call of all, one indeed that I don't ever recall hearing in the arts before: three cheers for the middle classes.

Please leave the children out

I was, of course, blindfolded and frog-marched to the event, but I did attend the Spice Girls' concert at London's O2 arena last week.

It was quite true, as widely reported, that the biggest cheers of the night were reserved for Victoria Beckham, pictured. It's said that the other girls are a bit miffed by this.

If so, it's not surprising as, in an evening of distinctly uneven vocal performances, her own vocal performance was the least even.

It is, of course, the worship of celebrity and her own climb up the celebrity ladder that have made her the fans' special Spice. But I can report that it is even worse than that. The night I went, Victoria's sons were in the front row to watch her. When they entered the arena, the crowd seemed to go wild.

Ten thousand mobile cameras were aimed in their direction and the lurch forward to be in closer proximity was as big as for the band itself. That, surely, is celebrity culture gone bananas.

* I was sorry to hear that among the likely Arts Council cuts next year will be the National Student Drama Festival. I was the first editor of a daily paper that the festival still produces, so I retain an affection for it. And I can't believe that a festival which gave a first national platform to the likes of Simon Russell Beale, and still mounts some great productions, should be in line for the chop.

I don't, though, condemn out of hand the Arts Council's policy of funding fewer better theatres, axeing some underperformers and encouraging new companies. But there is no point pretending that the first years of such a policy will not be painful.

The council's chief executive, Peter Hewitt, wrote in this paper that the policy would increase access. But, if Exeter's Northcott Theatre, one of the threatened venues, is axed, then there is an immediate decrease in access for Exeter's theatregoers, not an increase. Arts Council logic is curious.

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