Nicholas Kent: Noises Off

A healthy arts scene brings huge benefits to the capital, as the present Mayor understands, says the director of the Tricycle Theatre in London
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The Independent Online

In 1984, I put on my first show at the Tricycle Theatre, a production of Mustapha Matura's Playboy of the West Indies. In those days, our audience was overwhelmingly white and middle class.

Twenty years later, we revived the production. This time, the audience was completely different. As well as West Indians and whites, there were Afghanis, and Iraqis, and Somali Muslims, and they were all enjoying this Trinidadian play together. London today is home to so many different cultural expressions, and we all get access to all of it. The moment we start to share our culture with other people, we start to feel at ease with the differences between London's many communities. That's terrific for a city.

That's why it's crucial that London has a Mayor who cares about the arts – and so far, I'd give Ken a pretty good report. Theatre-goers used to worry about parking; now they know they can park if they need to, and pay to do so, or opt for public transport. The free travelcard for older people has brought a lot of people into matinees who were previously almost housebound, and the free transport for children is very helpful, too. The London Underground now runs later, and better community policing makes people feel they're safer travelling.

Ken's discounted theatre ticket schemes have created a new West End audience in that slack period at the beginning of the year: many people who have never been to the theatre before come in to see shows, and that has a knock-on effect for fringe venues such as ours.

There is, of course, much still to do. The 2012 Olympics will be a boon for London, but precious little money is being extracted from government for the important cultural aspects of the event – that is something the Mayor can do more to influence. With the Olympic development, the city's centre will move eastwards, meaning that the Barbican will be closer to most people than the West End. But the east is kind of an arts wasteland at the moment, which is why I was pleased to see Ken's arts manifesto promise money for new arts centres around the city.

The same document promised crucial support for the live music venues that help to make London such a musical melting pot. It shows that, fundamentally, Ken realises that culture can be an enormously powerful economic driver for a city. As he well knows, London's creative industries are worth £21bn.

The only reference to the arts and culture I can find in Boris Johnson's manifesto is something about the culture of disaffected youths on buses. He simply doesn't take the arts seriously. Nor does it appear as if Brian Paddick has much to say on the arts. I don't want to criticise either of them without knowing about their arts policies, but I'm at a loss to find out what they are.

This lack of engagement isn't only shortsighted, it shows scant knowledge of the economics of the arts in London. The arts are extremely good at making the most of the limited subsidy they get – and a little more money into the arts would create a disproportionately large number of jobs.

It's not just a question of finance. London is such an appealing, international city because it actively includes many cultures and minorities. Ken sees that the arts can be a wonderful means of fostering a sense of inclusiveness. He's curious about other cultures, and in such a diverse city, that's crucial. Boris's remarks on this subject in the House of Commons have always been rather jokey; they make him sound like a little Englander.

At the moment, London is at the cutting edge. I often go to New York, and even that city pales next to London. Right now, it's London that offers the most amazing concentration of arts in the world.

It just seems crazy to risk handing that to a lightweight, someone who is not a serious administrator. Ken has his detractors, and I personally don't like bendy buses. But here is a man who's been committed to London, and its culture, all his working life.