Angels need more than a pretty face

The angels had flown last week, leaving a play called The Guardsman sinking in the west

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"Almost without a trace," said Michael Pennington, an old pro playing the male lead in this reputable comedy by Hungarian Ferenc Molnar. The announcement of its impending closure, only two days after the opening night, might have been a record. Word of mouth in the West End is about money, not acting: the losses are said to amount to £250,000.

"Almost without a trace," said Michael Pennington, an old pro playing the male lead in this reputable comedy by Hungarian Ferenc Molnar. The announcement of its impending closure, only two days after the opening night, might have been a record. Word of mouth in the West End is about money, not acting: the losses are said to amount to £250,000.

This is a meagre sum compared with Napoleon, which opened last week to mixed reviews. The producers had spent £4.5m just getting it on stage. The following morning, most reviews were awful. "Nothing redeems it," wrote Alastair Macauley in the Financial Times. Now the backers have to decide whether to cut their losses or keep the show running, in the hope that clever marketing will draw an audience.

Theatre people have now started muttering about this being the end of the West End. The dramatic pessimists argue that the only plays with any chance of making money star Hollywood actresses willing to take their kit off. This is nonsense - Scacchi's presence didn't help The Guardsman.

What also worries theatre managers is the shortage of new products. New musicals from Cameron MacIntosh ( The Witches of Eastwick) and Andrew Lloyd Webber ( The Beautiful Game) do not feel like the successors to Miss Saigon. One theatre manager judges the quality of a show by asking himself whether he would buy a ticket for it: "At the moment my money's safe," he says.

But there is no deep financial crisis. The pool of punters known as angels, who put up the money to back plays, is not drying up. But they can't afford to ignore the risks. Backing a hit is nothing like winning the lottery, although angels who got on to Andrew Lloyd Webber's list early in his career have made pots of money. I remember a friend of mine worrying about the prudence of a £1,000 punt on Cats. Twenty years later, she has been collecting an annual dividend larger than her original investment. Most winning bets are more modest. A £1,000 investment in a play like Michael Frayn's Copenhagen will already have paid out £1,500 on top of an original £1,000 stake.

Most angels are able to judge within 10 minutes of a curtain's rise whether a production is a winner. They tend to choose a producer and stick with them, and experienced producers like Michael Codron, Michael Redington and Thelma Holt work with a core of loyal investors.

The West End has always drawn on a narrow investment base - too narrow for a bright, young producer called Sally Greene. She is raising money, not merely to put on a show, but to finance a company that will revive the Old Vic. She is raising £2m by selling shares in the company, and has the assistance of fine actors like Kevin Spacey and Judi Dench to persuade people that this is a worthwhile investment. She has already found 300 share buyers, including Mick Jagger and a Rothschild.

The producers of The Guardsman have been taught an old lesson. A film credit and a pretty face will not necessarily provide the spark that lights up a West End show. But a costly lesson is not the end of the world. It's show business.

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