David Lister's Week in Arts: Simply capital; the truth about theatreland

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The Independent Online

Theatre is once again in crisis. It happens every so often, usually in August, or at some point between the "Where are the American tourists" and "Pantomime ain't what it used to be" stories. This time some producers and newspapers have been bewailing not the numbers attending but the fare offered in West End theatres.

It's all musicals these days is the cry. There are no straight plays any more. One paper even produced a detailed theatre-by-theatre comparison with 40 years ago to show how dumbed down we had become. Forty years ago there was Chekhov and Shakespeare on offer. The fact that 40 years ago you could also venture into the West End to see such intellectual works as The Black and White Minstrel Show and Let Sleeping Wives Lie was not allowed to spoil the argument.

Current statistics are at first sight sobering. There are at the moment 26 musicals, and only six straight plays in the whole of London's official theatreland.

Now, this might come as a surprise to anyone who has been to see Shaw's Saint Joan at the National Theatre or Pinter's Hothouse at the same address or several other straight plays there. It will be equally bewildering to patrons of Shakespeare's Globe where contemporary plays share the billing with the Bard. Theatregoers who frequent the Old and Young Vic, Donmar and Almeida will also be puzzled, and patrons of Hampstead theatre, the Bush, the Finborough, Menier Chocolate Factory and the rest won't have a clue what the doom-mongers are talking about. The students of new writing at the Royal Court's two auditoria might also think the wringing of hands a bit over the top.

For I believe that when it comes to theatre, the West End exists only in the minds of those professionally involved in the art form - producers, investors, critics and the rest. Actual theatregoers don't make a distinction between commercial and non-commercial venues. Actual theatregoers just go to the theatre. It may be that there are people who say to their spouse, partner, family or friends, "Where would you prefer to go tonight, to a commercial West End playhouse or an Arts Council grant-aided venue?" But I doubt it. I suspect that most of us just say: "Do you fancy going to the theatre? Let's see what's on."

And once you think of all theatres equally, then the statistics look rather different. There are, in fact, plenty of straight plays, a huge amount of serious theatre, in London. Musicals are, in fact, in a minority.

Real theatregoers don't actually care which side of Waterloo Bridge they are on, or whether the venue is subsidised or commercially funded. They can't be expected to work out that a theatre slap in the middle of Covent Garden isn't officially in the West End. They just care that they have a good evening.

Look at it that way and there's nothing wrong with theatre in the capital at all. Look at it that way and you almost feel sorry for those brave musicals, struggling alongside Shaw and Shakespeare, Pinter and Gorky, all playing to packed houses in London at the moment.

Why does no one ever say that London is an object lesson for the rest of the world: serious, challenging plays are being staged all over the capital, and at cheaper prices than those lavish musicals concentrated in a few streets in that small part of the capital where it is difficult to park.

So, while it is not exactly fashionable to say so, it is nevertheless true that when it comes to serious theatre, we have rarely had it so good.

A novel scheme was announced this week for restaurants in Peterborough. An optional 25p is being added to one or more items on the menu in participating restaurants, with the resulting funds going to arts companies and artists in the city. The idea is the brainchild of local entrepreneur Peter Boizot, founder of the Pizza Express company and owner of the Great Northern Hotel in Peterborough.

If it caught on nationwide, it would, of course, revolutionise the system of financial support for the arts. Indeed, it could solve many of the problems of arts funding in one lunchtime. I shall be interested to know how diners take to it. How many diners will demand that the optional charge is removed from their bill because they don't like conceptualism, or didn't enjoy the last Harold Pinter play they saw, or thought the mushroom pizza was a bit soggy?

Doh! Need spelling help...

Doh! I am indeed going to use that word, which has been much recently with the release of The Simpsons Movie. Or, to put it another way, D'oh! Or, to put it a third way, d'oh.

It has been puzzling me quite how this word should be written. I've monitored the newspaper headlines, and they have tended to side with D'oh! I have also seen Doh!, which is how I always imagined the word to be spelled, and how the Oxford English Dictionary spells it. But The Simpsons writer Matt Groening apparently writes it as d'oh, so the headlines are correct - almost. Mr Groening, I believe, does not write it in capitals.

Nor is he the first to use the expression. Anthony Buckeridge, author of the very British school stories about Jennings, used Doh! in a 1952 book. Mr Buckeridge who died in 2004 at the age of 92, and would have been aware of The Simpsons, did not use an apostrophe for Doh!. So is an apostrophe correct or not? One for Lynne Truss, perhaps.

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