The West End ways aren't always the best

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The Independent Online

Something rather remarkable is happening down in Stratford, one of London's most ethnically mixed and socially deprived areas. A new musical, The Big Life, about the story of the first West Indian immigrants to Britain has sold out its entire run at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

Something rather remarkable is happening down in Stratford, one of London's most ethnically mixed and socially deprived areas. A new musical, The Big Life, about the story of the first West Indian immigrants to Britain has sold out its entire run at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

It's a fitting swansong for Philip Hedley, the artistic director at Stratford, who steps down this year after a quarter of a century at the helm. Hedley, a tireless campaigner for the arts, has done much to encourage a more diverse audience to discover theatre. But I know that even he was surprised when it was pointed out to him that if this musical transfers to the West End it will be the first show in the commercial sector - musical or straight play - to be about the black British experience. (It's also, incidentally, the first ska musical, but that's probably of less sociological significance.)

West End producers have never felt confident that they can bring in an Afro-Caribbean audience in the way that Andrew Lloyd Webber brought in a British Asian audience for Bombay Dreams.

But, as Hedley has shown, one way of bringing in an audience conspicuous by its absence in theatreland is to stage a show that speaks to the cultural experience of a specific community, or at least the experience of their parents and grandparents. This, certainly, is Hedley's view. I am a little more hesitant as I fear there is a risk of becoming almost patronising in thinking that certain communities (an iffy concept in itself) will be attracted to the theatre only if the play is about them or their parents.

But equally I can see that something new must be tried to change the complexion of Britain's diminishing audience for theatre. Putting on in the West End would be a risk worth taking. And it would pay, too, to study the unconventional marketing methods of the team in Stratford East. Hedley's staff do not sell their shows only in the clubs; they get on the phone to past attenders and chat to them, ask them to spread the word among their friends and try to get from them names of people who might be interested in seeing the show.

It's not everyone's cup of tea. Personally, I'm not sure I'd see any difference in nuisance value between a box-office clerk and a double-glazing salesman when it comes to cold calling.

But as the sold-out notices show, in the East End of London the unconventional choice of show and unconventional method of selling tickets are working. In the West End the conventional methods, with this audience at least, are failing.

No one's laughing in Ealing now

That classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers is, of course, inimitable. But that is a word alien to Hollywood, which has imitated it with a remake. The film, which stars Tom Hanks in the Alec Guinness role, is showing at the Cannes film festival next week. It has already opened in America to extremely poor reviews, which is some sort of blessing.

Why remake a classic? It is always more likely to offend and depress than succeed. It's particularly surprising that those genuinely original film-makers, the Coen Brothers, chose to do the film. Almost as criminal as tampering with The Ladykillers is remaking Alfie. But the Michael Caine movie has just been remade with Jude Law, somewhat implausibly, playing the cockney Don Juan. The argument given by some directors is that teenagers won't watch films in black and white, so it is worth remaking them in colour. But both Alfie and The Ladykillers were in colour to start with. It's much better to come up with new ideas and leave the classics alone. Next they'll be remaking The Iliad.

¿ Alan Bennett's new play, The History Boys, opens at the National Theatre next Tuesday. It is one of the most keenly anticipated cultural events of the year. Yet for years Bennett compared himself unfavourably with his three Beyond the Fringe colleagues. He tells one story of a moment which must have added to his insecurity. In a reception at Downing Street in the 1960s, the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson asked him what he did. He had been in Beyond the Fringe, he replied. Wilson said he had loved the show but didn't recall Bennett in it. "I assure you I was," pleaded Bennett. "No, I don't remember you," said Wilson with finality. Bennett says that he knew at that moment how Trotsky felt when he was written out of history.

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