David Babani: Noises Off

We're big on Broadway, but let's not forget to promote new British shows
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The Independent Online

The Tony award nominations for the best work in New York were announced on Wednesday, and it was a good moment for London theatre. Eight Brits were nominated for major acting prizes, and the Chocolate Factory's show, Sunday in the Park with George, picked up nine nominations of its own. To think that it started in our small theatre in Southwark makes me very proud.

But things aren't as perfect as they seem. The night before, the producer Sonia Friedman said that Broadway was outperforming the West End on almost every front. "Broadway has become far more fertile and adventurous than the West End," she said. "While the West End used to be about new work and the play, it's now about the musical."

I don't agree with all of that. The truth is that interesting and exciting work is being done in both places. There's extraordinary risk-taking going on on this side of the Atlantic, and a theatre-loving public that really wants to reward it. But the only way they can do that is through buying tickets. And at the moment they aren't, because they don't know enough about what we're doing. And this is where I agree with Sonia. Over the last few years, our industry's ability to promote itself has been badly eroded. We don't support our own industry anything like they do in New York.

To put a show on in the West End is incredibly expensive and risky, and has become more so over the years. Nowadays you can't even guarantee that your play will get reviewed. When our production of Dealer's Choice transferred to the West End, we followed the usual convention and booked a press night in the industry diary. Unfortunately for us, another show came along and stole it. Because it was a new production, the journalists were obliged to cover that, and we ended up with less than half the critics seeing our show – and because of that, our potential for success was severely compromised.

We have to avoid those kinds of clashes; we have to support each other as an industry. We should have rules and we should stick to them.

It's a similar story with our equivalent to the Tonys, the Oliviers. The Tonys make news all over the world, and winning one makes a huge difference at the box office. The ceremony is broadcast live on prime-time national network TV at eight in the evening – and every nominated musical gets a chance to perform. In contrast, the Evening Standard hasn't run a full list of Olivier winners for the past two years. They are not on TV. Last time I

checked my Sky box, there were 700 channels: does anyone seriously believe that there isn't one channel that would film our most prestigious awards? We have to do better. We can't just blame the media: it's us ourselves.

The consequences of our promotional failures could be severe. At the moment, even if all the critics agree something is brilliant, it's still not enough. Everyone has been shouting That Face from the rooftops, but it hasn't sold anything like it would have done five years ago – and that's terrifying.

I'm not saying theatre in the UK is in dire straits. Far from it. There are some upsides to tighter purse-strings: there is far less complacent producing going on in the West End and far fewer tired old warhorse productions.

So in a sense it's a brilliant wake-up call. If we carry on doing the same things, we could be in trouble. If we're able to take stock and keep reinventing ourselves, I think we have a great future. I just hope that we can speed up the reinvention process.

David Babani is artistic director of the Menier Chocolate Factory, which is running 'The Common Pursuit' now. www.menierchocolatefactory.com, 020 7907 7060

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